Longtime Mountain Goats fans are always excited for a new release from the group; at the very least they know they’re going to get to hear frontman and vocalist John Darnielle tell some fun stories in his sweet sweet whine of a singing voice. And they like what they know. But let’s be real, after 19 albums, we’re all secretly hoping for another Sunset Tree, or an All Hail West Texas. Most of us would settle even for another concept album like Beat The Champ. So alas, I am here to report that this album is by no means bad, and in many most respects it’s quite good, but ultimately it’s just another Mountain Goats album, and not certainly destined to be added to the list of the “greats.”
The songs in this new release were written at the same time as those in their last album Getting Into Knives, but were divided up and recorded separately; Getting into Knives was meant to contain the more uplifting lighter songs, while Dark In Here was assigned the darker and more chaotic tracks. One gets the sense from the band’s promotion for this album that they were very excited to have the opportunity to record these songs at FAME Recording studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, and to work alongside accomplished sound engineer Matt Ross-Spang. Undoubtedly, the instrumentals on these songs are beautiful, and it’s exciting to hear Muscle Shoals Rhythm Section member Spooner Oldham playing his organ intermittently throughout this album. Yet as a fan, I still find myself mourning the intimacy I always found in their more lo-fi sound, and have trouble adjusting to their more recent jazz instrumentations.
Despite the storytelling and songwriting expertise of Darnielle, lyrically not much in this album stayed with me, even after quite a few listens. Some songs like “The Destruction of the Super Deep Kola Bore Hole,” that were at first intriguing, turned out to be little more than half-baked ideas without much in terms of melody or lyric to grab onto. Recurring themes of working, hiding and dying in songs like “Dark in Here,” and “The New Hydra Collection,” seemed to briefly imply that we had a somewhat concept album on our hands about the Soviet team in the 70s who worked to drill the world’s deepest hole. Instead though, these songs seem to be less of a cohesive story and more of a collection of songs Darnielle has finished in the last few years and was ready to share.
Darnielle has identified the prevailing theme of this album as “calamity,” and has said that this is an album of “inner darknesses.” “Lizard Suit,” the third track on the album is a nice example of a creeping darkness that works up to total chaos. A soft percussive song with an urgency enforced by a smooth bass echoing and dancing seductively around a dissonant piano ballad, this is one of the albums strongest and most intimate tracks. Intensity increases throughout the song, as the protagonists muses on his fears of fitting in and being seen, until all chaos breaks loose in the outro, into what sounds like unplanned free jazz calamity.
A similar ambient chaotic calamity wipes through the end of the single released last year “The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums,” a digestible, calm indie rock groove that harks back to “Goths”- era Mountain Goats. Beautiful backing vocals from singers Susan Marshall and Reba Russell add a sweet texture to this track and also to “When a Powerful Animal Comes.” Most songs feature at least a short section that seems to be an improvised jam and a lot of the songs on this album were tracked in only two or three takes.
What is most impressive about this album is the history of the studio in which it was recorded and the impressive credits and chops of the talent they recorded alongside. It sounds as though the band had a really fun time recording this album, and that energy does seep through, though it feels somewhat in conflict with the general theme of chaos the band is trying to evoke. This is a strong album, but lacks the Mountain Goats usual ability to provoke a strong emotional response. Doesn’t beg for repeat listening.