If we are to classify the bond we have with artists as relationships then I think my relationship with The Mountain Goats has hit a rough patch. Look, I’m not saying I’ve fallen out of love with them or anything, it’s just that I think the spark has gone. The past few albums by them have been fine, but they all kind of blur into one after a while. They all share a certain tastefulness in regards to the music while the words, always the jewel in The Mountain Goats crown, were starting to sound comforting or, even worse, predictable, when once they were capable of creating an open wound after one listen. It was in this mindset that I approached their new album. After one listen I was ready to declare the relationship all but over, feeling that it was sustained only by the passion and memory of our early years. On second listen I thought perhaps that with some couples therapy we might make it after all. By the third listen it was true love all over again and I was looking forward to many quiet nights in on the couch with some wine and chocolate.
As always, main Mountain Goat John Darnielle imbues his characters with a certain stoic dignity, a gratifying steely resolve that allows us to see their humanity even when the characters actions seem to be self-destructive. Everybody seems to be hiding a terrifying secret from their past, an unbearable memory that will not let them rest until they are finally six feet under. This has sustained Darnielle for an entire career but until this album I thought perhaps his powers were beginning to fail him in recent years. When did I begin to change my mind? I think perhaps it was the string section in ‘Age Of Kings’ that first set my heart a flutter. Then I think it was the heavy atmospherics of ‘The Autopsy Garland’. I play the album again and the frantic ‘Estate Sale Sign’ makes my pulse race. It’s all coming together now. The charming backing vocals of ‘High Hawk Season’ make me smile for unfathomable reasons. I breathe a sigh of relief knowing that this relationship is far from over. This is, without a doubt, The Mountain Goats’ best album in years.
So where do we go from here? Is this a small ray of sunshine in an otherwise gloomy demise? I begin to wonder why this album works when the past two or three have not, despite having very similar qualities, and I see that this album has distinguishing details that give it sparks of life. The above-mentioned string section and backing vocals, small production details that enhance the songs without calling too much attention to themselves, the relative diversity of the songs themselves, everything falls into place correctly and the album, while not exactly soaring, achieves a certain majesty. Can it be done again, and again, with the band sticking to the same formula? This is where I’m not sure. I know that John Darnielle is an avid music fan, and that the music he appreciates covers a wide spectrum of tastes. If he were a DJ he could have been the American John Peel. Which leads me to ask, why doesn’t any of this show up in his music? Knowing that he’s a fan of metal, hip-hop, and probably several musical genres that I’ve never even heard of, I begin to feel like a person who has just discovered that their partner visits S&M websites after years of the missionary position. I’m not angry; I just want to know why he hasn’t shared any of this stuff with me.
Come on John, for the sake of us both open up a little. This relationship is still intact, but we have some work to do.
(This review originally appeared on Collapse Board)