Singer/songwriter John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats have been on a solid run for a while now, and here on their 21st studio outing they’re out for revenge. Well, to be more accurate, just as the band has released concept albums focused around themes like professional wrestling (Beat the Champs, ‘15), 80’s new wave/alt rock bands (Goths, ’17), and fantasy role-play games (In League with Dragons, ’19) in the past, here the collection of songs on Bleed Out are inspired by the adrenaline and testosterone fueled action movies of the 1960’s thru the ‘80’s.
“Training Montage” opens the album with a portrait of the predictable scene in many of these films where the hero is down but not out, and trains for their ultimate confrontation with bad guys. It’s Darnielle’s novelist eye for detail that makes the song work, as he describes “Water dripping from the pipes down in the basement/Bare feet on a concrete floor/Notches on the wall of my solitary cell/Sweat dripping out of every pore.” The music matches the intensity of the clips pace, Darnielle singing that “the horns will swell and the strings will sound,” before the chorus kicks in as the protagonist announces “I’m doing this for revenge… I’m doing this for you,” because of course it’s not heroic if it’s not a self-less act for someone else’s benefit. You get the point, it’s toxic masculinity pulled into public service because the bad guys are just that bad.
This is another subject matter perfectly suited of Darnielle’s wit and The Mountain Goat’s musical skill set, although these songs lend themselves more toward the straight-ahead, electric guitar driven rock, with aggressive rhythms and punchy chords that punctuate the movie soundtrack nature of these songs. “First Blood,” with its assertion that “John Rambo never went to Vietnam,” suggests the kind of Tom Cruise guilty pleasure that fuels a lot of teenage machismo, but the Merge Records album bio suggests that Darnielle’s movie tastes run more toward “French thrillers like 2008’s ‘Mesrine,’ vintage Italian poliziotteschi, or the 1974 Donald Pleasance mad-scientist vehicle ‘The Freakmaker,” but frankly an action movie cliché is an action movie cliché, even in French or Italian.
And Darnielle gets that, whether it’s one of those got to get home by midnight gang-land thrillers where there are “Guys on Every Corner,” or the goal is to reach the “Extraction Point,” there’s always some hot stuff anti-hero willing to “Wage Wars Get Rich Die Handsome.” Of course, there’s a fluid ironic stream that flows through many of these tracks, much the way a “peace and love” hipster might take vicarious pleasure telling their presumed enemy that I’m going to “Make You Suffer,” while the pacifist wipes the sweat and blood from their mouth to suggest that we’re going to “Need More Bandages.” And the music here is perfectly suited to kick a live performance into high gear, inviting the audience to shout along with Darnielle that “(I’m gonna) Make You Suffer,” or worst case scenario “(I’m gonna) Bleed Out.”
Of course, Darnielle isn’t and couldn’t pull this off by himself. He’s got able support from the kicking rhythm section of Peter Hughes on bass, and Jon Wurster on drums, and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas is playing a lot more electric guitar solos here, although there’s a couple sax pieces, but I don’t think I heard any flute or clarinet. The reliable quartet gets additional aid from Alicia Bognanno on guitar and keys. You hear the band’s talents best on a longer 7-minute track like “Hostages,” where the guitars evince a noir-ish vibe and the jam just goes on and on, gloriously. The two closing tracks lean closer to the band’s acoustic side, “Incandescent Ruins” drifting toward country music, and the lengthy title track where the piano and acoustic guitar offer a calming benediction to all the angst and woe that came before it.
It’s a funny thing, we’ve got real violence on display on 24-hour news channels day in and day out, but somehow you put on an unrealistic action movie where the events seem contrived beyond imagination and we’re grateful for the distraction. Bleed Out finds The Mountain Goats self-consciously turning that pattern inside out. Whip smart and artistically self-aware, it’s like a magic trick that you know is trying to fool you, but you go along because it’s so much fun, and you could use the distraction.
“Training Montage” / “Wage Wars Get Rich Die Handsome” / “Mark On You”
ARTISTS WITH SIMILAR FIRE
The Hold Steady / The Decemberists / The Magnetic Fields