John Darnielle is as prolific, versatile and just plain interesting as any songwriter of the last two decades, a claim that might surprise those not familiar with the California native’s long-running band The Mountain Goats, which has evolved from Darnielle’s boom-box recorded bedroom missives to full-band studio outings for Merge Records.
The Mountain Goats have dropped 16 albums since 1994. The most recent, last year’s Goths, is yet another effort in which Darnielle’s hyper-literate lyricism and modest but expressive voice take center stage. But the music, anchored by ace drummer Jon Wurster’s rhythm work, might be the most curious U-turn in the band’s already varied discography — Goths is a concept album about, yes, being a Goth via a sonic landscape best described as Lounge Pop. Guitars are almost nonexistent, which just puts more of an emphasis on the band’s clear gift for melody, relayed by an array of instruments, from horns to vibraphone.
Drama-drenched album-opener “Rain in Soho” sets the mood from the get-go, as a steady beat, piano chords and reverbed backing voices (which sound like haunted monks chanting) surround Darnielle’s sing-speak vocals that keep coming back to the cryptic chorus: “The river goes where the water flows/But no one knows when the Batcave closed.”
That’s followed by “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds,” a jaunty number about the lead singer of Sisters of Mercy, who in some quarters is called “The Godfather of Goth.” Likewise, album-closer “Abandoned Flesh” amusingly delves into the career of another band of aging musicians, in this case a British outfit called Gene Loves Jezebel.
Darnielle’s empathetic preoccupation with outcasts or the underappreciated has never been as overtly melancholic as it is on Goths, another entry in a discography that continues to surprise and fascinate.