The Mountain Goats: Getting Into Knives (Merge) | Under the Radar Magazine Under the Radar | Music Blog for the Indie Music Magazine
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Getting Into Knives

Nov 12, 2020 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share


Nearly every songwriter as prolific and legendary as John Darnielle begins to repeat themselves eventually. Yet The Mountain Goats, of which Darnielle is the only constant member, has had a remarkably versatile late career. Since 2015’s Beat the Champ, the uniting thread of The Mountain Goats’ records has been explorations of communities we build for ourselves, whether 1980s pro-wrestling, goths, or 4th and 5th Century pagans with March’s Songs for Pierre Chuvin (recorded on a boombox). Aside from Darnielle’s brief quarantine detour back into lo-fi recording, The Mountain Goats are a far cry from the project’s humble beginnings. Rather, over the 2010s, The Mountain Goats have become an incredibly consistent studio band in their own right.

With Getting Into Knives, the band drifts somewhat from that consistency with a record that abandons the conceits that have animated Darnielle’s latest albums. Rather than exploring a subculture or concept, it is a more traditional album, with less of a singular thematic focus. While the record is a more disparate project, both thematically and musically, Darnielle’s incisive wit and mordant musings still form the core of Getting Into Knives.

The early songs on the project make full use of the expanded band, stuffing the tracks with detail and an expansive sound. The early record highlight “Get Famous” puts Darnielle’s sardonic humor on display as he satirizes the idea of fame. When Darnielle opines to the song’s subject that, “You should be famous,” he delivers it with the biting tone of an insult. The track is also the most pop-friendly of the album, with its fiery guitar licks and blasts of horns that recall the band’s 2012 record Transcendental Youth.

The following track, “Picture of My Dress,” has a breezy early Belle and Sebastian feel to it as it imagines a woman traveling cross-country taking pictures with a discarded wedding dress. Darneille proves himself, as always, to be a master of storytelling, suggesting at questions with his vivid imagery, but never providing answers. “As Many Candles as Possible” is as brash and noisy as the band has gotten in recent memory, also a welcome new addition to the band’s sound. The dense, heavy percussion and discordant pianos on the track are both sinister and addictive in equal measure. These tracks truly show how well the band format can complement Darnielle’s songwriting. Often the focal point of a Mountain Goats song is the lyrics rather than the instrumental, but the presence of a full band draws out the possibilities from the best of these tracks, finding new depths and sounds to explore.

From this point though, the energy of the album somewhat drops off. The latter half of the record often relies heavily on Darnielle’s piano, foregrounding him while the band provides texture to his songwriting. This approach works well with the steady bass pulse and clarinet accents on “Tidal Wave” and is particularly strong on “The Last Place I Saw You Alive.” The latter track is as stark and heart-wrenching a song as Darnielle has written in years, made only better by Matt Douglas’ mournful saxophone. Yet on later tracks, the same approach can fall flat. On “Harbor Me,” especially, the urgency of the lyrics depicting a person on the run are robbed by the sedate instrumental.

Lyrically, Darnielle also doesn’t go far afield of his favorite concepts. His stories of petty criminals, existential dread, and horror-tinged animal perspective shifts shouldn’t surprise longtime listeners. Still, Darnielle remains an often brilliant lyricist. The title track pairs a chilling story of revenge with a gentle musical approach. Darnielle creates a quietly menacing killer looking for revenge on those who wronged him. He sings, “I stood at the door, and I listened/Rustled through my rucksack as quiet as I could/You can’t give me back what you’ve taken/But you can give me something that’s almost as good/I’m getting into knives.” Another lyrical highlight comes with “Wolf Count,” which places the listener in the desperate paws of a hunted wolf.

Although Getting Into Knives will certainly offer some exciting moments for longtime fans, it doesn’t necessarily add much to the overall Mountain Goats canon. It often stays firmly circumscribed in topics and styles the band has explored before and lacks some of the thematic consistency of Darnielle’s best work. Yet, change is often slow and incremental with The Mountain Goats, so perhaps not every record needs to be a sea change for the band. The album ultimately proves to be a rewarding listen with its moments of lyrical heft and genuine instrumental beauty while the full band format provides some particularly deft backing to Darnielle’s lyrical eccentricities. (www.mountain-goats.com)

Author rating: 6.5/10

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