Whatever concept inspires John Darnielle is almost incidental to the progress that he has made as a writer and performer. The last record was predicated on the sad tawdry circus of wrestling and this one on Goths. Both continue his development into one of the great contemporary songwriters. The sonic palette continues to expand – you might expect a record about Goth to subculture to in some way ape the genre but Darnielle sidesteps this smartly. There are a few musical Goth references but mostly the songs eschew guitars and synths and rely on the subtle shading of woodwinds.
The lyrics are a wry mix of narrative, observation and humour; there’s a true affection for the protagonists and an empathy. ‘Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds’ may ostensibly be about the Sisters of Mercy frontman. It’s really about the universal theme of returning home. The politics of the different Goth subcultures is tickled on ‘We Do It Different on the West Coast’ – the theme of finding something to fit into and working out how to fit in is a recurring undercurrent in the songs. Finding a music that belongs to you and then finding kindred spirits is liberating. Most of us are lucky enough to occasionally find that. I can vividly recall the moment when I first met someone else who loved the Go-Betweens. Most of us have felt the communal power of music, seeing Fugazi bonded everyone in the room.
Recent Mountain Goats records have set off memories and this is no exception. I shared a flat with a Goth so when songs like ‘Abandoned Flesh’ mention the lesser known bands like Gene Loves Jezebel or the March Violets: they are familiar to me, andbeautifully the use of the horns in the song suggests the melancholy of looking back. Darnielle’s vocals continue to improve and if you think back to the boombox lo-fi days the Steely Dan like chorus of ‘Wear Black’ is almost shocking, though the complexity of his writing these days approaches those levels without sacrificing the immediacy and accessibility.
The empathy and understanding of the subtleties of the scene get a pass for Darnielle. It’s an affectionate portrait, no sneering, and further evidence of his ever maturing talent. There a nuances from the ever more subtle use of instrumentation. ‘For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands’ is a fine example of the use of texture with small shifts of emphasis pushing the song forward. It’s a record for every Goth and every music fan.