The Mountain Goats’ singer/songwriter John Darnielle may be thought of by some as the poet laureate of all things nerdy due to entire albums drawn from the world of wrestling (Beat the Champ), Dungeons & Dragons (In League With Dragons), 80’s post-punk art rock (Goths), and obscure Bible verses (The Life of the World to Come), but his songs were always about things far deeper. Of course, he focuses on the unique worlds these albums encompass, but at the same time his songs speak to the whole of the human experience, the quest for meaning, relationship and belonging that drives all of us, at times acknowledging the failure to make those important connections.
While Darnielle’s earliest recordings were low-fi efforts often recorded on a cassette deck boombox, here on the Goats’ 19th album his songs benefit from the full band playing live together in Memphis’ famous Sam Phillips Recording studio with “Dragons” engineer, Matt Ross-Sprang, producing this time. Back in March, as the pandemic was locking most of us down, Darnielle returned to his solo boombox recording tape-deck and produced a 10 song album, “Songs for Pierre Chuvin” based on his reading of the author’s 1990 book, “The Chronicles of the Last Pagans,” which was released digitally and in a limited edition cassette version.
Given that return to his most intimate early recording method, Getting Into Knives is a much fuller, more vibrant take on Darnielle’s folk rock songcraft, with the band contributing in colorful and imaginative ways. If the opening track, “Corsican Mastiff Stride” sounds a bit like the Barenaked Ladies in its bright pop melodicism, “Get Famous” expands the pop rock vibe with full horns charts, a jazzy sax solo and a screaming guitar solo to boot. Obviously, this is Mountain Goats’ best sounding album ever, while “Get Famous” take on the celebrity that dominates mainstream culture is the band at its most radio-friendly accessible. It sounds so good, that wide distribution might put the band’s status as a quirky band with a cult following at risk. Oh, and the bobble head video is inspired.
The band glows just as hot on “As Many Candles as Possible,” with a nice guest spot by the Rev. Al Green’s organist Charles Hodges who seems to push the band to a high energy performance, including piano pounding and more guitar, on a lyric the bemoans the fact that none of us “get too much light.”
Elsewhere, Darnielle’s support players provide plenty of textured support with plenty of attention to the mood and spirit in his songs. Mountain Goat members include rhythm section John Wurster on drums and Peter Hughes on bass, and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas, with assists along with way from studio session guitarist Chris Boerner (Hiss Golden Messenger), Bram Gielen on various keys and guitars, and Tom Clary on horns. Whether on the stutter step rhythm of “Tidal Wave,” Douglas’ clarinet adding a jazzy timbre. The band responds to Darnielle’s sense of nuance and insight, like the grief at the heart of the piano ballad “The Last Place I Saw You Alive” or the other aggressive rocker, “Rat Queen.”
With Getting Into Knives, Darnielle’s Mountain Goats sound as strong as they ever have on record, while his songs continue to deliver smart, incisive commentary on the lofty hopes and dreams that inform the daily grind of existence. If these guys aren’t careful, they might actually lose their singular status for a modest, but deeply committed, “cult” following. Getting Into Knives is that good, that smart, and that entertaining.
Key Tracks: “Get Famous” / “Picture Of My Dress” / “As Many Candles As Possible”
Artists With Similar Fire: The Decemberists / M. Ward / Andrew Bird
– Reviewed by Brian Q. Newcomb