Don’t repeat yourself unless you find a new way to say something.
Mountain goats understand that.
With the release in June of Dark here, John Darnielle of Durham has released 20 albums under the band’s nickname, going from crisp boombox screeds to increasingly richer and more nuanced rock.
At the same time, he honed his talent to find the fine line between that last brightest burst of hope and the subsequent descent into despair. And for exploring it with a balance of specific detail and poetic quirks that make his songs instantly relatable. His themes and character types don’t change much.
But he continues to find new ways to sing about them, advancing his musicianship, for example, or taking concept album tours to explore the specific circumstances of professional wrestlers and goths.
At Dark here, it echoes his past work as much as it ever did. By relying on his group mates, he manages to stay cool.
The new album is a companion and a complement to that of last year Enter the knives and was recorded with Matt Ross-Spang, who followed Knives at Sam Phillips Recording in Memphis. After spending a week in Tennessee, they took to the legendary FAME recording studios for another week in Muscle Shoals, Alabama.
As Knives, Dark highlights the tight and expressive ensemble that the goats have become. Bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster bring a rich, responsive feel, whether they provide rumbling propulsion or understated percolations. Matt Douglas adds poignant pieces of wood, piano and guitar.
Star ringers — Spooner Oldham (Bob Dylan, Linda Ronstadt) on Hammond B3 organ and Wurlitzer electric piano, Will McFarlane (Bonnie Raitt) on guitar — add tantalizing embellishments, but the crux of this album is the chemistry of the goats as a group.
The songs on Dark are good, but they are slower and more passive than those on Knives. There is less intensity of teeth grinding and fewer burning statements than a typical Mountain Goats record. But the group finds an opportunity in this change of pace, allowing their music to take on a more thematic weight.
The slow-building “Lizard Suit” vividly explores social anxiety in an urban setting (“Let My Phobias Control My Habits / Let My Habits Shape the Forms of Days”), but the song’s breathtaking outro jazz makes the feeling inescapable, unfolding in purgative chaos.
“To the Headless Horseman” could not so perfectly convey the mixed excitement and terror that comes with encountering mysterious people and places (“As you approached I could smell the threat / But a stranger is only ‘a friend who has not yet shared his secrets ”) without his aerial but fearful arrangement, which also shines in the outro.
This musical growth is particularly vital on songs that most imitate Darnielle’s past.
On “Mobile”, a desperate criminal ponders Jonah’s story, pointing to the biblically inspired religious reflections of 2009 The life of the world to come. But this album did not feature the organic interaction of Hughes and Wurster, nor benefited from the playful guitar frills of McFarlane.
“The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums” revisits the musical allegiance and dejected isolation of one of Darnielle’s most famous songs, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton” from 2001. He returns the narration here in the first person and deploys a wiser perspective. The music summons a powerful tension between a hesitant electric piano and a domineering bass, far surpassing the blunt acoustic guitar of “Denton”.
Mountain goats could repeat themselves. But they keep finding new ways of speaking.
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