The Mountain Goats have returned with another concept album, choosing to explore the culture of Goth identity after focusing on professional wrestling and teenage obsessions in previous outings. Choosing such a stylised subculture, which takes in a variety of cultural influences, allows John Darnielle to interrogate what it means to edit the personality you present to the world.
Opener, ‘Rain in Soho’ is a choral tinged opener about the prospects of meeting someone who could be like you, and the bitterness of being alone created through soaring vocals and sinister bass lines. ‘Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds’ is a more melancholy reflection on the prospect of being lonely, albeit it with a jaunty beat. The concept of a former gothic rock frontman stepping off a bus in a hometown in England articulates the tone of the album – The Mountain Goats are wrapped in the ennui of acceptance that perhaps the time of the gothic rock, the genre they have become enamoured with for this album, is gone.
A symptom of modernity is that one has access to a comprehensive history of every movement in culture and society, and these movements can seem to have been the moment in time that you would have truly felt at home. Those moments have long since faded, however, and your efforts to recreate them will only ever be mere pastiche. This is a sentiment that comes through as Darnielle laments, “I’m hardcore/But I’m not that hardcore” in ‘The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attuned.’
‘We Do It Different in the West Coast’ has all the fixings of an identity crisis: considerations of bleaching one’s hair, of living in a different city, of spending weekends gluing pieces of plywood together. Considering whether to change aspects of your life lives within the same sphere of motivation that encourages us to cling to labels in the first place – when you don’t know who you are, the easiest thing to do is to build a framework of identity around yourself, and perhaps that identity is a sub-culture such as becoming a Goth. Of course, the identities we build can sometimes feel out-dated as we outgrow the person we once claimed to be, or the culture we once loved finds its way into something that it is considered vintage rather than topical. These sentiments are reflected in ‘Stench of the Unburied’ which places the temperature outside which is ninety-two degrees with the love of bands such as Siouxsie and the Banshees. The environment is quite literally unsuitable for the trappings of being a Goth.
The comfort of our chosen identity is that when things get bad, such as when you have to attend an intervention as is the case in ‘Wear Black,’ we can drift around looking like ourselves in every situation, even if we couldn’t feel less like ourselves. Eventually we have to face the realities of what we have become, even if we choose to fight it, begrudgingly acknowledging that perhaps our dreams have faded, but as Darnielle sings in ‘Shelved’ “The ride is over/But I’m not ready to go.”
‘For the Portugese Goth Metal Bands’ is a love letter to those who pursue their dreams and fantasies, hauling them “to the grave.” For some of us, our dreams and fantasies can pay the bills, and we need never question whether the identity we took on was the right decision. For others, however, such as Jean Loves Jezebel who take centre-stage in the story of ‘Abandoned Flesh’ dreams get left by the way-side as they have to find day jobs and fit an identity and way of being that allows them to survive. The album finishes on this note, but it need not necessarily be a sad one – growing older and realising that we did have something that resembled glory days even if it was never the sweeping success that we may have craved is better than never having tried to create the identity that we thought would make us great.