On 2015’s Beat the Champ, the Mountain Goats’s John Darnielle poignantly wrote about death through the thematic use of his longtime love of professional wrestling, a sport that theatrically draws lines between heroes and villains and success and failure. Goths, the band’s 16th album, focuses on the far blurrier boundary separating artistic success from failure, as the 50-year-old Darnielle revisits the lifestyle, sensibilities, and music fandom that, as a teen, led him to dye his hair black and dress “like a bad undertaker.”
Though it taps into goth culture’s prevalent imagery, frequently referencing caves, graveyards, and crows, the album doesn’t try to adopt the subculture’s musical aesthetic, other than, perhaps, on the lone dark and brooding track, “Rain in Soho.” For the first time, Darnielle wrote an entire album on piano, filling in Goths’s lush arrangements with woodwinds, driving basslines, and jazz drumming, a far cry from the long stretches where the Mountain Goats’s music consisted solely of Darnielle’s voice and acoustic guitar. The broader sonic palette and emphasis on more melodic vocals present an upbeat tone on an album that never plumbs the morbid preoccupations often aligned with its titular community; instead, it reflects on the personal compromises and inevitable shifts in priorities that come with growing older.
Darnielle deftly weaves through memories of an impressionable period in his life and its accompanying soundtrack while avoiding the pitfall of nostalgia or sentimentalism for the music of his youth. He manages this feat by approaching the past indirectly, using fictional narrators, concocting strange scenarios that involve his favorite goth bands, and taking the liberty to write from their perspectives. The idea that we can never truly escape our past is vividly explored on the bouncy “Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds,” as Darnielle describes the Sisters of Mercy frontman reconnecting with old friends in an unpopular hometown club, which is succumbing to dust, rust, and mold. Meanwhile, “We Do It Different on the West Coast” captures the territoriality inherent to various music scenes, told from an early-1980s perspective when, according to Darnielle, L.A.’s goth style was more organic than the “batcave” accoutrements found in London, Berlin, or New York.
While the album name-checks pillars of the goth music community, it more often celebrates the genre’s lesser-known or nameless working class. Though he sings that Robert Smith may be “secure at his villa in France” and Siouxsie Sioux “had enough hits to keep the bills paid” on “Abandoned Flesh,” Darnielle is often more concerned with bands like Gene Loves Jezebel, who let internal acrimony derail their considerable promise. He sings about marginally successful Portuguese goth-metal bands, who at least get to play festivals in Brazil, and struggling musicians like his narrator in “Shelved,” who’s still hanging on to his dream despite realizing that “the ride’s over” because he’s no longer willing to beg promoters, rely on gimmicks, or sell out his own creative vision in order to “tour with Trent Reznor.”
Darnielle most directly confronts the realities of how time changes one’s priorities on “Paid in Cocaine,” as his narrator’s concern over paying down mortgage interest now supersedes the desire to live a hedonistic lifestyle or chasing after the glory found in the “radiance of the stage.” In this way, Goths pits the virtue of perseverance against the pragmatism one eventually needs to adopt in order to survive, asking what makes for a greater artistic tragedy: giving up on a dream or hanging on to it too long?