Not a masterpiece or concept, and that’s fine
Few bands ride the line between adventurous and consistent, quite like The Mountain Goats, even with their insane release schedule, as Dark in Here is their fourth record in the past two years. John Darnielle and his ever-expanding circle of collaborators have released some of the strangest concept albums over the past decade, ranging from wrestling and meth addiction to ’80s goth rock and organ harvesting colonies on the Moon. As a result, any of their albums that don’t immediately hook in listeners through sheer novelty are going to pale in comparison.
Dark in Here certainly explores interesting territory, like a modern retelling of the book of Jonah on “Mobile,” but that’s not that dissimilar from The Life of the World to Come, featuring 13 songs named after various Jewish and Christian verses. That’s not to say Dark in Here is a bad or even average record, but it doesn’t distinguish itself from the rest of their exemplary catalog, a similar flaw that befell 2008’s Heretic Pride, and its sequencing leaves something to be desired.
Though some fans lament Darnielle abanding his home recording space and lo-fi sound from the ’90s and moving towards a richer arrangement with a full band, few contemporaries in folk or indie rock sound as pretty as The Mountain Goats, aside from the filmy cymbals near the end of the title track, everything sounds lush and animated without feeling saccharine or overstuffed. Though there are none of the epic strings sections from In League With Dragons, Dark in Here still contains plenty of interesting layers and textures while still exploding when it needs to. The jazzy finale of “Lizard Suit” with its increasingly improvisational instrumentation and the slow, beautiful fade out of the various flutes and organs on “Before I Got There” prove that Darnielle does not need a full orchestra to close out a song in an interesting way.
The guitar was definitely Darnielle’s main instrument during his lo-fi phase, and even after he introduced other elements, it was still the main force behind records like The Sunset Tree. Dark in Here goes the way of tracks like “Rain of Soho,” one of the best songs of the past decade, and “We Dot It Different on the West Coast” from Goths, and largely focuses on piano, percussion and bass. Whereas Goths was meant to capture the ’80s post-punk scene, Dark in Here has a spaghetti Western, alt-country flavor; Peter Hughes claims the album is about the wild of nature. The drums have a lot of urgency with dramatic fills and roll, the bass is low-pitched and sketchy and the pianos are single, punctual notes rather than flowing, elegant melodies.
There are plenty of additional elements as well with accordions, organs, flutes and horns, and the guitars are still present with the faster gallop of “Parisian Enclave,” the squeakier tone of “Arguing With the Ghost of Peter Laughner About His Coney Island Baby Review,” and the choppiness of “The New Hydra Collection.” However, the tracks dictated by other elements tend to the best, as they work best with Darnielle’s more morose delivery. “To the Headless Horseman” and “Before I Got There” capture similar longing desperation against a piano bouncing off itself on the former and with a stunning closing minute on the latter. In a genre where drums are often omitted entirely, it’s still great to hear percussion utilized for dramatic effect while being brisque and subtle when it needs to be.
As previously stated, Dark in Here does not have a true unifying theme. It still packs in some powerful emotions, especially the ode to John Berman on “Arguing With the Ghost of Peter Laughner About His Coney Island Baby Review,” and the chilling lines that capture the record’s loose Western aesthetic on the title track and nature fighting back on “The Destruction of the Kola Superdeep Borehole Tower.” However, the sequencing is strange, as said Berman eulogy seems like a perfect fit to end the record, yet it precedes a very similar and inferior song in “Let Me Bathe in Demonic Light.” It’s also jarring for so many songs to have no guitar for the middle part of the record, only for the instrument to return for a couple of subpar songs, like “The New Hydra Collection” and how it packs too many syllables in short meters, and later songs that go back to only piano, bass and drums like “The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums” don’t stand out as much. Dark in Here is still a beautifully produced and performed experience with jaw-droppingly gorgeous moments, but Darnielle finds himself a victim of his own success by not delivering something as conceptually cohesive or gripping as he has before.