John Darnielle possesses a penchant for verbosity and scale when it comes to his music. His vivid storytelling acumen has been an attribute that’s both repelled and galvanized listeners of The Mountain Goats since their inception. Purists may have something more to grumble about after a listen to the band’s first record without even a whiff of guitar to amplify Darnielle’s nasally pontifications. Whether or not that instrumental void has anything to do with Goths being a not-so-cleverly disguised homage to, um, goths, is up for debate. But despite all of Darnielle’s truly humorous odes to the subculture, Goths is a strangely hollow listen.
As the permeating noisemaker of choice for several generations of foundation-caked pubescents, the piano plays a starring role on Goths, allowing Darnielle and co.’s worldly musical palettes to flick humorous and heartfelt odes to the lives of the eyelinered and fishnet stockinged set. The album’s first track “Rain in Soho” begins ominously enough, with a minor-chord piano progression and pulsating kick beat, setting off what ought to be a sinister ride into the macabre rivulets of gothic philosophy, with Darnielle singing, “No promise sweeter than a blood pact/Nothing harder to go through with than a vanishing act/no morning colder than the first frost/no friends closer than the ones we’ve lost/nothing sharper than a serpent’s tooth/nothing harder than the gospel truth.” All the while, the beating of a rapturous chorus is nuanced by pseudo-Victorian chamber vocals, lending momentum to the song’s impending crescendo.
From there on out, though, the record takes a sharp turn into the kooky. On “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” Darnielle parlays a jaunty fictional account of a formerly untouchable mega-goth icon returning to his hometown, putting the Sisters of Mercy frontman in his crosshairs. The song’s delightful woodwind accompaniment, courtesy of Matt Douglas, accents its inherent likeability, and helps push the song’s cyclical theme. Darnielle again employs the understated rhythmic thrust of Jon Wurster’s drumming on the free-jazzy “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement.” Through trippy, distant horns and twinkling keys, Darnielle’s protagonist moodily admits “I’m pretty hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore,” in response to the filed-teeth of an uber-goth in a West Covina cave.
“We Do it Different on the West Coast” comments on the fundamental differences between goth culture in Berlin, Ohio, Long Island and beyond as compared to its West Coast tenets. The charm of the tune, again, has almost nothing to do with its anemic musicality, but in its hilarious study of regional variations in musical communities that is so important to underground scenes. Darnielle could have performed this song with a shrieking guitar and the brilliance of uncovering the dorky ideologies of goth variance would have still been funny. The fact that an entire album focused on goth music is rendered almost entirely non-evil through the Mountain Goats’ cheeky prism is probably the record’s greatest strength. Never have the miseries and angst of goth music’s foundations sounded quite so bubbly, as Darnielle sings, “I heard they had a problem with some skinheads/at a show at a machine shop in Pomona/I feel like half my friends have moved to San Francisco/I think I’m gonna bleach my hair this weekend.”
Later, “Stench of the Unburied” investigates the nocturnal habits of waking goth-y shut-ins who listen to Siouxsie and the Banshees on KROQ. The propulsion of the track owes to a steady rhythm section, more than the rudimentary plunks of the keyboard, and appears wonky in spite of its “rock of the ‘80s” chorus kicker. The easy-listening patina of “Wear Black” is yet another example of a funny premise made strangely uncomfortable by a contemporary R&B backdrop.
While the charm of such a diametrically opposed sense of musical aesthetics is palpable, and even fairly ingenious, the end result amounts to the watered-down muzak of Broadway schlock. From a conceptual standpoint, Darnielle has achieved an exclusive analysis of the brooding would-be darkwaver, though the brilliance of the inside jokes could fall on deaf, pale ears here.