For many, it was the earthy lo-fi of earlier releases that proved to be the unique selling point of The Mountain Goats, but from around 2008 onwards there has been a significant amount of polish that has been added to proceedings. What has been consistent throughout the evolution of the band’s sound is John Darnielle’s captivating anecdotal narratives. Getting into Knives may demonstrate the biggest swing away from the band’s original musical identity and this does take a bit of getting used to, but Darnielle’s songwriting expertise remains as potent as it ever has been.
Where earlier records allowed the fifty-three year old Darnielle to dive deep into personal histories, Getting into Knives revels in the collective spirit of creativity. There are depths, layers and variety that can only be achieved through collaboration and the range of musical styles and genres on this record confirm the concept. Darnielle articulates that “a bunch of people playing together is inherently joyous,” and album opener ‘Corsican Mastiff Stride’ appears to epitomise this notion. It is almost an anti-Mountain Goats moment as a result; an upbeat pithy number full of jangly guitars and crisp drum beats is not what you would necessarily expect considering the previous album was loosely categorised under the dragon noir genre!
‘Get Famous’ quickly settles into a more recognisable Darnielle groove. As usual, the clipped vocals are front and centre (this has always been one of his greatest strengths), but the big band approach continues as subtle keys and a surprising horn section battle with crisp electric guitar tones, which morph deceptively into striking solos which must surely be a first for a Mountain Goats record. The lush acoustic timbre of ‘Picture of My Dress’ is perhaps more familiar but ‘As Many Candles as Possible’ is a complete volte-face; Peter Hughes’ bone-rattling bass is matched by clattering percussion that contributes to the violent tone of Darnielle’s vocals.
The jazzy ‘Tidal Wave’ restores the balance around hypnotic clarinet foundations and the summery inflections of ‘Pez Dorado’ complete a lavish potpourrii of early tracks that never feels self-indulgent. The noirish ‘The Last Place I Saw You on Earth’ kind of spoils this march of progress but the vintage ‘Bell Swamp Connection’ transports us back to the tender fragility of the Get Lonely era. Darnielle rarely attempts the epic but the previous record demonstrated his prowess on the awesome ‘An Antidote for Strychnine’ and this track is its equal in its elegiac emotion.
The delicateness of ‘The Great Gold Sheep’ passes you by but there is a timely reminder of John Darnielle’s passion for horror in the chromatic visuals of ‘Rat Queen’ and ‘Wolf Count’ which ooze with the mire of the genre despite the misleadingly smooth vocals. The electrification of the former enhances the menace.
Despite one or two mis-steps then, album nineteen simply reconfirms that Darnielle and co have a knack for reinvention that retains enough of what we loved about them in the first place to make the reunion a thoroughly satisfying experience.