Leela Corman’s cover painting for Goths shows a crowd jostling about in a subway station, of varied ages and complexions. Only the title prompts the viewer to note they all could be members of that enduring, ethereal, alternative tribe—to think they walk among us. And then to ask yourself: Am I one? Or have I been?
In advance, even those familiar with the wit and sensitivity of the Mountain Goats’ songwriter John Darnielle (also lately an acclaimed novelist and occasional Slate contributor) might have worried that the concept here seemed too ripe for easy humor. But that was an artful dodge, the way that goths themselves put together performative fronts as a form of revelation through camouflage. These songs center on the less-stereotypical, early-1980s roots of goth (or “deathrock,” as Darnielle might have called it then). And they’re set largely in the sunny, seemingly anti-goth environment of his youthful Southern California haunts, such as West Covina (also the site of TV’s best-ever musical, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, which likewise exploits its idyll for disobedient fun) and Long Beach.
In that milieu of adolescents acting out a love affair with the idea of death, this album discovers an opportunity to contemplate aging, loss, and mortality.
This play of surfaces goes beyond the album title and lyrics. Save for a few choice moments, Goths doesn’t sound like the Sisters of Mercy or the Cure. It also doesn’t sound like any past Mountain Goats album. The group has been known mostly, and a bit unfairly, as a vehicle for Darnielle’s lyrics; for years, he laid them down at home with only a guitar and a cassette boombox. But this is the band’s most expansive, most beautiful recording, as much a sound voyage as a mental and emotional one. It demands listening even if you haven’t loved the Mountain Goats before and don’t care about goths. Though I can’t, personally, claim objectivity on either of those counts.
It shouldn’t have taken this album to tip us off that the quarter-century–running Mountain Goats project had a goth streak as wide as the skunk stripe in Lily Munster’s hair. It was just shrouded by the band’s dressed-down, strummy indie-folk style and shouty vocals. Add up Darnielle’s recurring themes, and a bouquet of white pancake foundation and black hair dye clouds the atmosphere: troubled youth, doomed romance, addictions, exile, horror movies, ghosts, vampires, Tarot cards, the Bible, demons, various archaic mythologies, H.P. Lovecraft, abused children, masked wrestlers (unless wrestlers are too butch to be goth?), and loneliness.
It’s there in Darnielle’s characteristic rhetorical tone, at once prophetic and evasive, mocking and serious, like an endearingly surly goth teen. He’s famously a fan of death metal; for years, he wrote a monthly backpage column in the metal mag Decibel. But as a songwriter he has more generously romantic (dare I say, New Romantic) tendencies, though grounded in a self-aware emotional realism.
In the opening song here, “Rain in Soho,” he refers to the Batcave, the London ground zero of goth where Bauhaus, Siouxsie, and Alien Sex Fiend held court. As the liner notes declare in a 1983 compilation of music from that club, complete with typos:
Look past the slow black rain of a chill night in Soho; Ignore the lures of a thousand neon fire-flies, fall deft to the sighs of street-corner sirens — come walk with me between heaven and hell. Here there is a club lost in its own feverish limbo, where sin becomes salvation and only the dark angels tread. … It is a challenge to the false Idol. It Will Endure.
Add a wry adult, but not too adult, perspective and this could be the narrator of Darnielle’s “Autoclave” from 2008’s Heretic Pride, trying simultaneously to warn away a would-be lover and to pay tribute to Cheers in the most goth way possible:
I dreamt that I was perched atop a throne of human skulls,
On a cliff above the ocean, howling wind and shrieking seagulls,
And the dream went on forever, one single static frame—
Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.
The Mountain Goats’ best songs are about subcultures. The difference with Goths is that it is a subculture most people have heard of.
Given Darnielle’s leanings, though, that turns out to be not quite true. These aren’t the goths you might see at Hot Topic or in fashion magazines, though those goths are not excluded. Goths is mainly concerned again about smaller clutches of people: a few kids crammed into a car with a cooler full of Coronas and the cops on their tail (“Stench of the Unburied”). Or a couple of guys from bands—actually, over the album’s course, several guys from bands—whose careers aren’t going to pan out, who have to put away their bat buckles and platform boots and get a job, maybe in data entry or more optimistically, computer animation (“Shelved,” “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds,” “Paid in Cocaine”). Every story is someone’s own, intimate story.
Sometimes it’s Darnielle’s story, as well as that of his longtime bassist Peter Hughes (who, for the first time on a Mountain Goats record, writes and sings a section of one of the songs, which suddenly goes very Joy Division)—and, a little bit, mine. We were teens around the same time, and while I never got as much into goth as Hughes and Darnielle seemingly did, I would dabble with eyeliner and the occasional cape (!) to go to new-wave dances. I had friends who enveloped themselves more completely in black, who I later realized were the semi-openly gay students at my small-town Catholic school. On that level, although it wouldn’t have matched musically, I wish this album had included the unreleased Mountain Goats favorite, “You Were Cool,” with its lines about a bullied kid “clicking down the concrete hallways/ in your spiked heels, back in high school.”
“We Do It Different on the West Coast” evokes how painfully regional such scenes once were. Subcultures were rumors you’d pick up from stray newspaper and magazine accounts, or a single photograph. Then you’d cobble together your own version. Sometimes a friend might go on a trip to catch the heavier action, and you’d struggle with your own curiosity while wanting to defend the thing you’d made your own: “Dave went to New York—I don’t care/ You can’t shut people up, once they get back from their Christmas out there. … We do it different on the West Coast.”
The song ends with the protagonist fooling around with circuit boards and trellis modulation phone hacking—portents of how the internet would sweep such isolated subworlds away.
“Rain in Soho,” which features a choir from the Nashville Symphony Chorus, and to some degree the mid-album manifesto “Wear Black,” with vocal arrangements by Grammy-nominated gospel singer Robert Bailey, are the two most traditionally goth-sounding songs here, driven ahead by pulsing keyboards and some sturm-und-drang flourishes. Otherwise, while Goths doesn’t attempt much in the way of goth emulation, it respects it enough as a nonconformist musical movement to avoid swallowing it up in the Mountain Goats’ standard style.
The credits proclaim in all-caps, “NO COMPED VOCALS. NO PITCH CORRECTION. NO GUITARS.” This must be partly a conscious parody of the way some reactionary 1980s rock groups like Boston would stipulate “NO SYNTHESIZERS” on their albums’ back covers, a swipe at the anti-macho synth music coming out of England, in particular, at the time. But it is also literally true, an aesthetic constraint that takes the Mountain Goats in fresh directions. There’s a precedent in 2009’s piano-centric The Life of the World to Come. When Darnielle plays piano (and, here, the Fender Rhodes), he has more formal training to call upon than he does on guitar. The songs have more harmonic complexity and aren’t as confined metrically as they usually are by his propulsive rhythm-guitar style.
What’s more, though, this is the first full album with the Mountain Goats’ newest member, the woodwinds (sax, clarinet, etc.) specialist and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas. Between Douglas, the keyboards, and the fact that Darnielle’s singing here is more melodic and nuanced than before, Goths becomes surprisingly jazzy.
That stands out on the third track, “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement.” (A classically cryptic TMGs title, though I think the second part has something to do with Dungeons & Dragons?) It’s a tale about some young aspiring goths encountering a veteran (perhaps as grizzled as 18) who’s gone so far as to file his teeth down to sharp points. With Jon Wurster using brushes on his drums, the Rhodes sounding almost like a vibraphone, and Douglas’ sax, the soundscape—while Darnielle, on the chorus, sings in a startled hush, “I’m pretty hardcore, but I’m not that hardcore”—is reminiscent of Joni Mitchell’s jazz-rock albums The Hissing of Summer Lawns and Hejira. Besides being a couple of the best records ever made, their context reinforces Goths as a specifically Southern California album, a time capsule in Darnielle’s life (he’s lived in North Carolina for years now, and before that in spots around the country).
Elsewhere, the keyboards-and-winds arrangements summon up the 5th Dimension, Steely Dan, or even Earth, Wind & Fire. They let Darnielle express more of the range of his own tastes than he ever has on a Mountain Goats album. Those jazz-fusion inflections, with their links to black music, also help balance out one of the pitfalls of focusing on goth: With its fetishization of pale skin tones, it tends to be one of the most Caucasian subgenres in music. The Batcave’s equivalent of the “no synths” or “no guitars” injunction was a “no funk, no disco” rule for its DJs.
Darnielle always has been an avowed opponent of nostalgia. But no one in middle age can avoid the fact that the accumulated gravity of one’s past begins to occupy mental space. And as a writer, Darnielle’s great subject has turned out to be the confused energies of the developing mind and heart. He articulated them prolifically, with great compression and precision when he was still young himself, in his first decade of cassette releases. Then he started to become a memoirist with albums such as 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed (about early-adult drug addiction) and the 2005 landmark The Sunset Tree (about the childhood abuse he suffered at the hands of his stepfather).
He has continued to write about young protagonists in his novels. And though 2015’s Beat the Champ was ostensibly about Southwestern wrestling, it was really about what those figures meant to Darnielle growing up—in hopes that most people could identify with the role of hero-worship in constructing a self, even if it didn’t involve piledrivers.
Goths represents a modest advance lyrically and a large one musically. It isn’t about goths then nor about goths now. It’s about what it might mean as an adult to remember having had the foolhardiness to take such an absurdly earnest masquerade seriously. It’s a courage you should love because you’re always going to need it.
The most dire consequence, in songs such as “Rage of Travers” and “Shelved,” would be the ripped-up feeling of giving up part of your identity and your dreams. The one misstep, to me, is another variation on that theme, in the closer “Abandoned Flesh,” which delves into the career of third-tier goth band Gene Loves Jezebel to an extent better-suited to one of Darnielle’s great onstage monologues than to the finish of such a well-paced album.
Still, better to embrace what you can from that phase, that kid you barely can picture having been. It helped to convey you on your way, to repair some of your trauma and dislocation, and to hypothesize that the world still had room for you. Then, as the music does here, try to slot it into its proper place.
As in so much of Darnielle’s work, Goths communicates a gratitude for having survived that romance with death and, as “You Were Cool” puts it, “come back breathing.”