Dark in Here puts The Mountain Goats on a welcome new wavelength, opening a door for future sonic possibilities.
The Mountain Goats, the ever-prolific quartet led by multi-hyphenate John Darnielle, returns with another album hot on the tail of an active release cycle. Recorded near the beginning of the pandemic, Dark In Here tells the stories of characters facing imminent danger and distress, a common enough theme for the fictional individuals Darnielle writes on the group’s records.
More precisely, there are two prominent recurring thoughts on this record. The first is a concerted push for preparedness in the face of imminent dangers. Tracks like “The Destruction of the Kola Superdeep Borehole Tower” pair this impending struggle with religious and mythic imagery, something that former Catholic Darnielle is no stranger to using in his work. The song works as a step-by-step guide for finding your own resolve in the midst of fear, the title a reference to an abandoned mineshaft where workers claimed to hear screams from hell down below as they worked; preparation for confrontations with darkness. Similarly, “The New Hydra Collection” boasts a narrative about scientists anticipating and planning for a creature that will soon attack, hoping for some meantime defense. But as they prepare, they realize there’s almost a hope for cataclysm, and so their work is not in vain. This leads into the album’s second recurring theme, which sketches stories of danger arriving, likely the result of the characters’ faults. “Let Me Bathe in Demonic Light” delves specifically into the intersection of these two motifs, the lyrics detailing a character whose end of story is near, by their own hand, their striving for preparedness becoming their ultimate downfall. Continuing in this vein, “Before I Got There” is another track rife with religious imagery, but here the song’s narrator is beset by an inverse of this problem, where an end has already occurred — specifically, the destruction of a holy place — due to a lack of readiness. There’s guilt present, but also resolve.
In keeping to his storytelling instincts, Darnielle writes songs in conversation with each other; and despite some differences in detail across these tracks, every character on Dark In Here has one thing in common: a commitment to the work at hand and a willingness to go down with the proverbial ship. The songs testify to a certain human instinct toward resilience, whether in the face of everyday struggles or a world-altering pandemic; or, more eerily, the place where the two overlap. Darnielle has never been shy about facing his demons in song, with much of his work dealing with alcoholism, bad behavior, and the collateral damage his actions have wrought on those around him. While his early work tends to address this with lo-fi sounds and light guitar strums, the presence of the full band on this (and, indeed, many of The Mountain Goats’ recent records) lends more gravity to his musings, the impression that of his career-long probings coalescing into crescendo. And so, while the tinny, sparse production of the group’s earlier output may have been the sound that got made them a name, this broader palette, dense with the sonic affect of someone who has survived tribulation, opens a new door for The Mountain Goats, with any number of meaningful possibilities behind it.
Published as part of Album Roundup — June 2021 | Part 4.