The Mountain Goats – Dark in Here – Album Review
by Cathy Brown
John Darnielle, founding member of The Mountain Goats, has been busy during lockdown. Dark in Here marks his twentieth studio album and the band’s third in just over a year. This new LP was recorded in the week between their most recent releases—last year’s Getting Into Knives and Songs for Pierre Chuvin—at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, just as the first lockdown was being introduced in the United States.
On Dark in Here, Darnielle’s voice is more rounded and nimble than it has been for years and a mingling of piano, Matt Douglas’ effortless woodwind and layered vocal harmonies creates an expansive and hypnotic atmosphere throughout. The arrangements here are loose and confident, bringing a sense of immediacy and vibrancy to these 12 songs, which were recorded over a mere 6 days. The album is eclectic, flirting with jazz, blues and alternative rock but is given cohesion by the bedrock of John Wurster’s drums and pianist Bram Gielen’s striking piano riffs.
Album opener Parisian Enclave, sung from the point of view of the rats of that great city, is a jaunty, percussion-driven traditional tune, all jangling tambourines and speedy, barbed vocals. The Deconstruction of the Superdeep Kola Borehole Tower continues in a spiky way, led ably by a spoken word performance that brings to mind the raw sound of late 80s era Pixies.
Single Mobile changes the album’s direction and lightens the mood with a laidback, relaxed aura that owes a lot to the 90s crooning of Lloyd Cole. It is a standout on a strong album featuring some stunning guitar lines from Muscle Shoals session player Will McFarlane and the summery electric piano of living legend Spooner Oldham.
Title track Dark in Here manages to be both menacing and comforting all at the same time, perfectly capturing that dichotomy at the heart of our existence for the last year. The pandemic may throw a long shadow over this album, but it is only referred to in passing. On the brilliant The Slow Parts of Death Metal Albums Darnielle is his most direct. ‘In a new universe,’ he sings, ‘trying to find a mask that fits me’ a lyric that explores the need to develop a personal sense of identity but is now true of most of humanity as we enter a post-pandemic world.
All the songs here feel like elegies to something that has been lost, the free-form jazz styled outros of Lizard Suit, and The Slow Parts… attest to the rising sense of panic that was forming in the air outside the recording studio at the beginning of lockdown in 2020.
Before I Get There and Arguing with the Ghost of Peter Laughner about his Coney Island Baby Review form a pair of gorgeously ethereal folk-tinged tracks, which blanket Darnielle’s supple vocal with warm instrumentation and a deceptively easy but exuberant arrangement.
The ominous title of closing track Let Me Bathe in Demonic Light belies the balmy soft-shoe shuffle of a song that could have come straight from a Broadway Musical as the album fades out in a serene cloud of organ and woodwind.
‘Who’s coming with me, when I arrive at my pre-ordained place?’ Darnielle croons. Based on this mesmerising, multifaceted and supple album, I think we should all join him.