The Mountain Goats
Getting Into Knives
At this point with The Mountain Goats you know what you are getting yourself into. Not that there hasn’t been any surprises in their long and storied career but John Darnielle and company are one of the most reliably solid bands that continue to produce records. From the early days of Darnielle recording songs on a boombox to the 2000’s start of the more solidified band lineup, The Mountain Goats have consistently been putting out wonderful albums full of their trademark pithy bittersweetness and beyond fine musicianship.
Now, with their nineteenth studio album and second of the year, Getting Into Knives, coming out this Friday, October 23rd via Merge records, the band are on one of the longest stretches of brilliance of any recording artists ever. There is an understated simplicity to their work that belies how well crafted and complicated these songs actually are. That is the measure of fine craftsmen and craftsmen is a great way to describe each member of this band. Produced, over six days, at the legendary Sam Phillips Recording Studio in Memphis with Matt Ross-Spang (John Prine, Margo Price and Jason Isbell), Getting Into Knives is a worthy addition to The Mountain Goats absolutely untouchable oeuvre.
Kicking off with the party chatter of opener “Consican Mastiff Stride” you immediately latch onto the warmth that flows through this entire album. The swinging groove and the endearing “Go” before the minimal yet necessary guitar solo in the song’s climax is top shelf Darnielle. The thing about these Mountain Goat albums is the complex simplicity of Darnielle’s lyrics. It’s hard to think of many artists that can say so much, so conversationally in the context of a song. The band, as well, is firing on all cylinders. From “Get Famous” and its big bopping groove, huge organ and horn sounds to “As Many Candles As Possible” with the crunchy guitars and giant toms, the group is as sharp as they ever have been. This is especially highlighted in “Tidal Wave” with it’s loopy bass and four on the floor intro which segues into a big and fully widescreen arrangement, complete with a surprise clarinet arpeggiation that effortlessly floats through the track. The song could also be a metaphor for our current climate of quarantine and lockdowns with Darnielle singing such lines as “Everything becomes a blur/From 6 feet away/Get used to this”. That could be an aching reminder of the pain we have of not knowing how long this will last or, as evidenced from the chorus, “Not every wave is a tidal wave”, an expression to have some perspective on the emotions we do feel always. Lyrically, the album reaches the level you expect from Darnielle. It’s at times as hilarious as it is heartbreaking. In “Picture Of My Dress”, a song inspired from a tweet by the poet Maggie Smith, Darnielle sings while sitting in a roadside diner, “Mr. Steven Tyler is on the overhead speaker/He doesn’t want to miss a thing” into “I’m gonna have to chase down the remnants/of something special that you stole from me” and tonally he makes it all work perfectly. On “Harbor Me” he takes the romantic cliche of being protected by your partner to another level with the lines, “Clear me a space on the hallway closet floor/Lie to the cops when they are at your door/Throw crumbs/Get the hounds are off my tail/Make sure the coast is clear/Before you get my mail“, and it is as fun as it is emotional. “The Last Place I Saw You Alive” is a subdued, almost jazz infused, piano driven ballad. The clarinet makes another welcome appearance alongside a great saxophone solo in the middle eight, punctuated by some light, tasty cymbal and tom swells. The drumming across the board is great and that shouldn’t come as a surprise as it is longtime Goat and great session player Jon Wurster. The whole band, Darnielle, Wurster, bassist Peter Hughes and multi instrumentalist Matt Douglas are constantly and subtly layering these songs with their unique preternatural touch.
It is always a treat whenever The Mountain Goats release a new collection of songs. For a band to do it as constantly as they do, it shouldn’t be, but it’s always a nice surprise hearing how good these always turn out. The thirteen tracks featured on Getting Into Knives practically beg for you to come back to them as they, quietly and calmly, unfold with greater emotional resonance with each and every listen. There aren’t many things anymore that are consistent so it is truly nice to have The Mountain Goats remind us that even in our darkest days they will be there with a soft touch, warm shoulder and hearty laugh for us to lean into.