By Ethan Bloomfield, Contributor
Key Tracks: “The Last Place I Saw You Alive”, “Bell Swamp Connection”, “Getting Into Knives”
What can be said about The Mountain Goats that hasn’t been? John Darnielle and company have created 13 studio albums and some of the biggest indie classics for the better part of three decades. Their lyrics are smart and complex, and instrumentation is a wild card. 2020 alone has seen two full-length releases from The Mountain Goats: Songs for Pierre Chuvin and Getting Into Knives. The former is a throwback to the blown-out sound of the now-famous boombox recording, while the latter boasts a more polished, high-dollar kind of production. Getting Into Knives feels less like Mountain Goats-magic and more of a squeaky-clean yet forgettable performance — for better or worse.
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Heavy disclaimer before I go any further: this is going to be a subjective take on this album. My own personal experiences are with it, and nobody else’s, so your mileage may vary.
I want to talk about Darnielle’s writing style. I know him for abstract lyrics, references to pop culture, religion and current events alike. He has a knack for making mundane stories compelling, and human stories personal.
“Fall of the Star High School Running Back”, “Standard Bitter Love Song #8”, and “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod” all feel like a person telling a story of an experienced or an old friend. Getting Into Knives has all of those elements in it, with both true and fictional accounts, lots of flowery language and a penchant for long verses. It tends to feel like sung-through poetry and it shines through songs like “Bell Swamp Connection” and “Pez Dorado”. Lyrics like “Toward the tail-end of the age that’s almost finished / Where the highway starts to crack and nobody fixes it” jump out at the listener. They are vivid and clear.
While this is the case, the lyrics are hindered by Darnielle’s delivery against the often flat and canned-sounding instrumentation. “Get Famous” is the most egregious example of this. In the first seconds, the lack of depth in the organ tune and slick guitar is apparent. The saxophones in the chorus breathe life into the track but the rest of it feels manufactured.
Songs for Pierre Chuvin, on the other hand, is blatant in its rawness, for better or worse–recorded on the boombox that saw many of Darnielle’s early recordings, with its fuzzy hums and blown-out aesthetic. To compensate, the polish of Getting Into Knives gets slathered on and it feels almost too good to be true. Is either style more perfect? No, but both have their disadvantages; those on Getting Into Knives feel more apparent.
This is not to say that the album is unlistenable. The more laid-back tracks like “Pez Dorado” and “Harbor Me” are enjoyable and calming, but they aren’t The Mountain Goats. Rather, they sound like the best Mountain Goats cover band–which is just fine–but not the same. Songs like “Broom People” or “Up the Wolves” off the beloved The Sunset Tree have an immediate commanding yet gentle depth of sound. It doesn’t feel the same on this record–while that’s okay, and this record is still good and enjoyable, it feels like a step down.
I love this band. Ever since I first heard All Hail West Texas in 2015, I have been captivated by the lyrical stylings and pleasant instrumentals that make the Mountain Goats who they are. I consider Darnielle a master at what he does, but I came out the other side of this album no worse or better than when I came in. In the end, I’ll still have enjoyed my time with Getting Into Knives, but I think I’ll just listen to Heretic Pride again.