“I live in the darkness,” John Darnielle warns us on the Mountain Goats’ latest. That Darnielle needs to spell that out so clearly ought to be cause for alarm, since he hasn’t exactly been Mary Poppins up to this point. One of the most charming songs he ever wrote, 2005’s “Dance Music,” was an origin story of sorts about the power of his record player to drown out the pain of his abusive childhood; “Against Pollution,” a lovely hinge point on the Goats’ excellent 2004 album We Shall All Be Healed, opened with a poignantly rendered liquor store shooting; his 2003 classic Tallahassee centers around a marriage collapsing into the swamps of Florida, highlighted by tunes with titles like “No Children” and “The House That Dripped Blood”; the Goats’ fine 2019 LP In League With Dragons came with a hot rocker called “Cadaver Sniffing Dog.” I could go on.
But even at his most unsparingly grisly, Darnielle has delivered his dispatches from the hardest precincts of the darkest margins with a perfect balance of irony and empathy. For Dark in Here, the Mountain Goats’ fourth release in 14 months, the band went down to iconic FAME Studios in Muscle Shoals, Alabama, in late March of 2020, just as the world was reeling from the shock of the first days of Covid, and the album they produced certainly captures the mood of the moment: “Let my phobias control my habits,” Darnielle sings on “Lizard Suit,” as minor-key piano and Jon Wurster’s taut hi-hat pattern build foreboding tension. “Let my habits form the shapes of days.” Tragedy and grim peril abound, from the doomed quester praying for apocalyptic salvation in “Mobile” to the title track, a last-ditch outlaw revenge fantasy steeped in spaghetti-Western guitars, to the album-closing “Arguing With the Ghost of Peter Laughner About His Coney Island Baby Review,” a bereaved tribute to the late David Berman in which Darnielle movingly salutes, “Hurt too hard too long and die too young/Silver dollar glistening on your tongue.”
When Darnielle got going in the Nineties, it seemed like his boombox-recorded acoustic songs were mainly just containers for his brilliant writing. Over the years, the Mountain Goats have blossomed into a full band that pays just as much attention to musical craft as lyrical genius. On Dark in Here, the playing is finely wrought enough to more than live up to the storied recording space it was created in, understatedly textured, somber, and graceful (aided by session greats like organ player Spooner Oldham and guitarist Will McFarlane), undercutting the spookiness of “The Slow Parts in Death Metal Albums” or “To the Headless Horseman” with an enveloping warmth, as if the band is lighting a small torch against the bleakness gathering around them.
Darnielle delivers the album’s subtly etched theme of shared trauma most powerfully on “Before I Got There,” in which he imagines arriving at the scene of an unspecified catastrophe minutes too late to do anything about it but just in time to be the first to witness its horror. “Victims of the fallout/I have failed you,” he sings as a spare orchestral accompaniment swells underneath him. Few artists could render a hellish end so tenderly.