The Mountain Goats are, arguably, one of the most prolific bands working in music today. Since their formation in 1991, the indie folk group- consisting of anywhere from one to four members at any given time- has released sixteen studio albums, twenty-four EPs and singles, and dozens of other cassettes, splits, collaborations, and digital releases. The band tours almost annually, famous for never playing the same set twice and switching up the lineup on the regular. In its current incarnation, the band is a quartet consisting of John Darnielle, songwriter, vocalist, pianist, guitarist, and the band’s only constant since its inception; Peter Hughes, bassist and backup vocalist; Jon Wurster, drummer; and Matt Douglas, the most recent addition to the group, specializing in varying woodwinds, as well as guitars, keyboards, and backing vocals where needed. Their newest release, a digital-only EP entitled Hex of Infinite Binding, provides an interesting microcosm for this stage of the Goats’ history, and a lot of themes that can be seen throughout their discography as a whole.
In the 27 years since their debut, not only have the Goats undergone a multitude of lineups, but they’ve also changed their sound a number of times. Most of the records from the ‘90s are recorded by Darnielle on his boom box’s built-in mic, giving them all a distinct, and fairly divisive, lo-fi aesthetic. With the release of 2002’s Tallahassee, the group moved into a studio, and Hughes took on bass duties full time; on 2008’s Heretic Pride, they added a permanent drummer in Wurster, and the most recent full-length release by the group- last year’s Goths– marked Douglas’ official membership into the group.
Goths also marked another notable sonic departure for the group: the record features no guitars on any track. A twangy acoustic was basically the only constant in the group’s discography up to that point, barring Darnielle’s unmistakable vocals, so this change was more than a little jarring. The record is still excellent, however; Darnielle’s lyrics are as pointed and poetic as ever, and the music matches it perfectly. As the title may suggest, the album deals primarily with goth subculture, and all the accoutrements that come with it (death metal, wearing black, hatred for selling out).
But, of course, it’s not really about all of that stuff. It’s a meditation on identity, growing up, and looking back at where you came from, where you are, and where you’re going. “Unicorn Tolerance,” for instance, tells of a young man trying to force himself into a more “tough” persona, with heartbreaking lyrics like: “And when the clouds do clear away/ Get a momentary chance to see/ The thing I’ve been trying to beat to death/ The soft creature that I used to be.” Every Goats release- and, when you really get down to it, most music that makes a point of having substance- is mired in this type of thematic lyricism; the record before Goths, a concept album about professional wrestling entitled Beat The Champ, uses stories about watching high-flyers on a black & white TV, and the mythology of a good wrestler turning bad to discuss passion, vice, and self-reflection, to a startlingly effective degree.
Hex of Infinite Binding walks this line wonderfully. The lyrics on the surface are typical Goats fare; the first track, “Song for Ted Sallis,” is an homage to the Marvel Comics character Man-Thing. “Almost Every Door” tells an ambiguous story of fear and trying to escape. “Hospital Reaction Shot” is an embellished recounting of Judy Garland’s husband holding a press conference on the day of her death, complete with hyper-specific references to The Wizard of Oz (“Gone down where the goblins go”). “Tucson Fog,” much like “Almost Every Door,” is more of an emotional track than a narrative one, with ominous, dour tones and lyrical references to the macabre scattered throughout. Each of these songs tells a dark story, and is underpinned by equally dark themes. As John Darnielle wrote in the brief description that accompanied this album, “Only one of these songs is directly about death but the person or persons in all these songs will someday die.” If you listen to each track, this underpinning of downbeat, almost nihilistic philosophy flows through the record from track to track.
As with Goths, the sonics that accompany these lyrics aren’t as dark as one might assume based on hearing the lyrics. “The fog took shape/ Like a golem with a vengeful eye” are words you may expect to be backed by metal or horrorcore music, not a 50 year old man with an acoustic guitar. This stark contrast, maybe more than John’s vocals or simplistic guitar playing, is the true through-line of the discography of the Mountain Goats. Tallahassee, the band’s 2002 record centered on the crumbling marriage of two self-destructive alcoholics, features a number of catchy tunes despite the lyrical content that could give someone a mid-life crisis. 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed and 2005’s The Sunset Tree are both semi-autobiographical stories of John’s life- the former about his issues with drug addiction in early adulthood, and the latter about his abusive stepfather and itinerant childhood. Both records are very accessible for most listeners- especially Sunset Tree, which is probably the group’s most popular record to date. In fact, if you know any Goats songs, I’d bet it’s either “This Year,” the closest thing to a breakthrough hit the group has had to date, or “Up The Wolves,” one of a few Goats tracks that have been featured in TV soundtracks- in this instance, a season 4 episode of The Walking Dead. Maybe the strongest example of the juxtaposition, though, is 2008’s Heretic Pride, my favorite Goats album; the record features 13 discrete stories of horror, fear, and sadness- ranging from references to Halloween’s Michael Myers, the real-life murder of a beloved reggae artist, and a none-too-subtle track entitled “Lovecraft in Brooklyn-” while the songs themselves are brilliant and as well-composed as anything Darnielle has ever written. [Sidebar: while I referred to Beat The Champ as a concept album earlier, upon further consideration, it feels like every record Darnielle has ever released is something of a concept album. He can’t help but write albums that serve as greater than the sum of their parts.]
But while the lyrics might be ominous and weird, the songs are all very human- often achingly so. Get Lonely, the band’s 2006 LP, features a number of really sad tunes, including “Woke Up New,” a quiet ballad marking a man’s first morning waking up without his former partner. Transcendental Youth and All Hail West Texas, thematic twins from a decade apart (2012 and 2002 respectively) are both collections of songs about broken, sad, lonely outcasts; Youth features highlights such as “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” and “Cry For Judas,” both anthems for those who act out and make ill-informed decisions in an attempt to evoke inner emotion. Texas– the prototypical Goats fan’s favorite album and the oft-suggested starting place for the group- begins with, “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” which, contrary to what the title may suggest, is a heartfelt story of friendship, mental illness, and dreams- ending in the shouted refrain, “Hail Satan!”
It amazes me that, over nearly three decades, the Mountain Goats have managed to be so consistent. I don’t love their early stuff- I think 1997’s Full Force Galesburg is where they really found their stride- but even so, 20 years of killer records is no small feat. I wouldn’t call Hex of Infinite Binding the best thing Darnielle has ever released, but it’s incredibly consistent with the band’s overall ethos. Definitely give them a listen if you haven’t.
Full Force Galesburg- “Minnesota”
All Hail West Texas- “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”
Tallahassee- “No Children”
The Sunset Tree- “This Year”
Heretic Pride- “Heretic Pride”
Transcendental Youth- “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”
Goths- “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds”