The Mountain Goats pay tribute to things that were once cool in new album Goths

The Mountain Goats comprise (clockwise from far left) Matt Douglas, Jon Wurster, Peter Hughes and John Darnielle.
The Mountain Goats comprise (clockwise from far left) Matt Douglas, Jon Wurster, Peter Hughes and John Darnielle.PHOTO: MERGE RECORDS

Nostalgia - the longing for a past rose-tinted by time - has become an invaluable asset in a culture riven with profitable franchise reboots and retro acts.

The challenge is to call it out and sift hard truth from all the romanticism.

That is perhaps the message behind Goths, the 16th studio album by iconic Durham-based indie folk/ rock band The Mountain Goats.

To be clear, Goths does not sound at all like goth rock, that sub-genre of British post-punk styled with kohl eyes and Medusa hair.

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Instead, the music is a dollop of 1980s-sounding, guitar-less, jazzylite, smooth rock-pop, flecked by horns and piano. It may seem odd initially, but rather appropriate when you consider that lead Mountain Goat John Darnielle, now 50, is surveying the bands of his youth and wondering what has happened to them.

Adulthood has crept into the lives of rockers past their prime and reality bites. On Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back To Leeds, Darnielle describes the frontman of The Sisters Of Mercy finally returning home after the rock dream dried up: "They don't throw him a parade/He comes in on the train/One suitcase in his hand/And an old army backpack/From the second World War/ From a Leipzig secondhand store."

  • INDIE FOLK/ ROCK


  • The Mountain Goats comprise (clockwise from far left) Matt Douglas, Jon Wurster, Peter Hughes and John Darnielle.

    The Mountain Goats comprise (clockwise from far left) Matt Douglas, Jon Wurster, Peter Hughes and John Darnielle.PHOTO: MERGE RECORDS

    GOTHS

    The Mountain Goats

    Merge

    4/5 stars

The words are delivered straight, played off against the mid-tempo jaunt of drums and a slightly anachronistic sprinkling of flutes. It is as if you are just awakening from a decades-old dream. The sun is too bright, but the air feels fresh, strangely familiar.

As usual, sometime novelist Darnielle has an eye for telling shrapnel ("the breezy feeling of the faceless crush") that reveals a character's inner life.

To his credit, the characterisation is not cynical - not in, say, director Todd Solondz's school of nihilism. Instead, it shines a torch into the abyss of loneliness and makes one feel less lonely.

Celebrities, singers, movie stars are all mortals, subject to the same forces of ageing. Wear Black is a wonderfully deadpan paean to the goths' sartorial choice. The track Stench Of The Unburied is an ode to either the persistence of nostalgia or the last sentries of past glories. "And outside it's 92 degrees/And KROQ (The Rock Of The 80s radio station) is playing Siouxsie And The Banshees," Darnielle sings in his unmistakable wheeze over buffed bass and a slapdash disco beat.

In a sense, it is his way of paying tribute to the things that were once cool and he is unafraid to declare his allegiance, expired or current.

In the jaunty pop ditty Unicorn Tolerance, he confesses his childhood adulation of fantasy novels ("I have high unicorn tolerance"). "For what my friends must think of me/ Dig through the graveyard/Rub the bones against my face," he recalls, and you are sure he is smiling.

He leaves the best for the second last. For The Portuguese Goth Metal Bands swirls with woozy synths. For about four minutes, all is banished in favour of the rituals of devotion.

"Candlelight playing its tricks on the walls of the cave/Hauling these songs to the night from the mouth of the grave," he whispers, calling out the bards, creatures and fallen singers forgotten and now redeemed.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 24, 2017, with the headline 'Paying tribute to things that were once cool'. Print Edition | Subscribe