20 years and 20 studio albums since the band’s debut, The Mountain Goats are back a mere eight months after the release of their last album, “Getting Into Knives.” The Mountain Goats’ 20th studio album, “Dark in Here,” is a 12-track indie folk record that aligns with the band’s lyrical and melodical history.
Recorded at FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, the Durham-based group pursued snappy guitar melodies and jazz-based tones juxtaposed against largely solemn lyrics and stories to produce an album that, by all means, may be one of the band’s most somber. “Dark” is right.
The album opens with the fast-paced track “Parisian Enclave,” in which peppery guitar riffs lead directly into a catchy chorus. Immediately thereafter, the incredibly specific song “The Destruction of the Superdeep Kola Borehole Tower” takes listeners on a similar journey, musically speaking, but the lyrics detail an interesting story concerning the song’s namesake, the deepest borehole in the world in terms of true vertical depth.
In this second track, The Mountain Goats embark on what turns out to be a common theme across the album: the illustration of stories penned by lead Mountain Goat John Darnielle, whether they be fictional, biblical or historical. The band is no stranger to such tactics, as seen from their previous albums, but nearly all 12 tracks could be seen as a departure from the brighter side of Darnielle’s lyricism and instrumentals that are displayed in previous albums.
“Mobile” is the first of these slower songs on “Dark in Here,” as thumping drum beats and forceful guitar riffs make way for plucky melodies; however, the storytelling aspect of the album is as present as ever as Darnielle offers lyrics centered around a fiery retelling of the Book of Jonah.
The titular track, “Dark in Here,” jolts the listener back down to earth as a cacophony of various instruments performed by the quartet of Mountain Goats leads straightaway into heavy lyrics portraying themes of war and bloodshed. On the contrary, it’s a tad more difficult to put a finger on the pulse of “Lizard Suit,” a four-minute track that makes way for progressively more chaotic beats after a jazzy start.
Darnielle’s lyrics continue to shine through at the halfway point of the album, as brassy interludes and forlorn perspectives define “When a Powerful Animal Comes” and “The New Hydra Collection.” However, the track “To the Headless Horseman” is a welcome intermission to the flowy yet oftentimes depressive songs that come before and after it. As slow as the track might sound, the themes of nature are positively lovely, and lines such as “a stranger’s just a friend who hasn’t shared their secrets yet” give a slightly hopeful outlook as listeners plunge into the latter half of the album.
“The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums,” a “semi-autobiographical mediation on being a metalhead teen in the late ‘80s in California,” strays away from the flora and fauna to tell a despairing story of a young adult trying desperately to fit at a time when finding a comfortable niche was nearly impossible.
A long outro by the quartet leads directly into the booming drumbeat intro of “Before I Got There,” another song clearly rooted in disaster and tragedy as the admittedly unreliable narrator paints a scene of carnage that, as the title suggests, took place before he got there.
“Arguing With the Ghost of Peter Laughner About His Coney Island Baby Review” is a sweet yet sorrowful tribute to the late music reviewer who tragically passed away at 24 years old in 1977 after contracting acute pancreatitis. The line “hurt too hard too long and die too young,” accompanied by a delicate vocal performance by Darnielle and a simple chord progression is a delightful listen, despite the subject matter.
The final track, “Let Me Bathe in Demonic Light,” is a fascinating juxtaposition of some of the most upbeat melodies of the album and the questionable, potent lyrics centered around themes of the afterlife, prophecy and religion. From reading the lyrics alone, one might think such a song would coincide with a harsh clash of instrumentals, but that couldn’t be farther from the truth. In fact, the song premiered in 2019 as a part of the North Carolina Arts Council’s In The Water series, which “highlights the symbolic and literal places that shape the sounds and souls of North Carolina musicians.”
The 46-minute journey that “Dark in Here” brings listeners on is a strange one, to say the least, but it aligns with The Mountain Goats’ modus operandi of impressive instrumentals accompanied by niche storytelling, albeit in a slightly darker fashion for their 20th studio album. Regardless, the album feels well-balanced despite notable commonalities of both lyrics and melodies across tracks, and it’s a good sign that Darnielle and the rest of the band’s talent still shines through so soon after their last album.