I’m not sure what it was about that last Mountain Goats album Getting Into Knives that hooked me more than everyone else. Maybe I’m a sucker for the writing leaning into a feral and dilapidated place along with the rougher production, maybe it was how there were enough slow burn moments to really suck me in, maybe it was listening to it alongside the newest clipping for a thematic synergy that gave them both so much replay value.
Anyway, folks have been way more supportive and excited about this Mountain Goats project, highlighting its immediacy and how the songs were better than ever… which makes things really awkward when I come here and say that I wasn’t really feeling this as much as I wanted to be. Yeah, I’m as shocked as anyone, but I’ve given this a lot of listens really trying to find the greatness that hooked so many folks and while it’s certainly very good, I’d only say it’s on the cusp of greatness, and to my shock a lot of that is rooted in the songwriting and themes. John Darnielle has described this project as a sister album to Getting Into Knives recorded around the same time, and I definitely hear some of it in the bleaker imagery and increasingly haunted weirdness, but there’s a different flavour to the darkness here that honestly reminds me more of In League With Dragons or Goths, where the album might cloak itself in those tones but in reality feels more human and “normal” beneath it all… except minus the intensely detailed settings that gave those two albums so much character - yeah, I dug the layered Biblical detachment of ‘Mobile’, but it’s one of the exceptions.
I think another factor is urgency: an album like Getting Into Knives was all unstable, feral edges drilling into that territory where the melancholy came on the side, whereas Dark In Here is already in that dreary space and getting more comfortable there, which is reflected in the instrumentation picking up more of those jazzy arranged elements from Goths but with a more refined, realized tone, free jazz freakout on ‘Lizard Suit’ excepted. But that was an album that was acutely aware of how ossified in time that scene was, where age and ongoing life are the greater dangers, whereas this album doesn’t quite have that contrast point or added level of artifice in the storytelling, which has the feel of going down a familiar, meandering road but with less points that stick out; it’s not like this album has a ‘Rain In Soho’ either.
So what we wind up with are a selection of increasingly scattered but pretty good Mountain Goats songs that honestly could be slotted among the slightly lesser cuts of any of the last three albums - more accessible for sure as there’s less of that deflective artifice, but not really better for it. Which is a shame because when it comes to the production and instrumentation of this album, this might be one of their most varied and propulsive in sometime: the pulsating gallop of the bass, organ, and snares on ‘The Destruction of the Kola Superdeep Borehole Tower’ and the piano accented title track, the soft rock of ‘Mobile’, the great slow-burn of ‘The Slow Parts of Death Metal Songs’… but when you realize that the majority of even the best songs run long, the momentum starts flagging and there’s less that pulls me back.
So while I don’t think there’s the obvious standouts that’ll suck me in forever, there’s enough great songs to just edge this to an extremely light 8/10 - I don’t think I’ll go back to this in the same way as their best, but when the Mountain Goats have the consistent quality that they do, some of it is just managing expectations.