The burst of creativity from John Darnielle, the word-swilling frontman and piercing singer-songwriter behind the North Carolina-based Mountain Goats, has not receded one bit in recent years. Quite the opposite: After successive full band triumphs with the noir-roots of 2017’s Goths and the wizardly wistfulness of 2018’s In League With Dragons, Darnielle is now entering the fourth decade of his recording career with a pair of 2020 albums.
If this year’s earlier Songs For Pierre Chuvin harkened back to Darnielle’s early All Hail West Texas-era days as a solo boombox savant, his latest album, Getting Into Knives, is a delightful representation of the band’s latter day off-kilter indie roots warmth.
Recorded at the legendary Sun Studios in a feverish week just before quarantine, the quartet (bassist, Peter Hughes, drummer Jon Wurster, multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas) never devolves into mere retro-Memphis cosplay, like so many artists taking a swing at recording in The House That Sam Phillips’ Built. Instead, songs like “Get Famous” gently swell with horns, while opening track “Corsican Mastiff Stride” swings to a light shuffle rhythm with a bass line that would make Marshall Grant proud.
Mostly, the Mountain Goats’ latest displays the group in peak narrative form, delivering moving storytelling from ever-unexpected sources. “Pez Dorado” is a surprisingly moving, lightly loping ode to goldfish: “The spawning tide never ends.” The album centerpiece “Picture of My Dress,” meanwhile, finds Darnielle turning a tweet about a woman working through a divorce by taking a roadtrip with their wedding dress into a profoundly moving mid-life crisis travelogue. The scene-setting is as poignant as ever, with the song’s narrator weeping their way through a crispy chicken sandwich at a Dallas Burger King as Aerosmith’s “I Don’t Want To Miss a Thing” blares on the overhead speakers. If anyone could make the words “I get extra mayonnaise, it’s a mess” sound profound, it’s Darnielle.
The concluding title track is another keeper, a darkly comforting narrative that winds its way through regret, revenge, and, well, a passionate new hobby. “I tried to keep things in perspective/As I hunted down the perpetrator,” Darnielle sings over a quiet acoustic and drum arrangement, “Loaded up my toolkit with every hateful instrument/Now here we are thirty years later.” On Getting Into Knives, Darnielle shows that the Mountain Goats’ toolkit is always expanding, and his tools are getting sharper all the same.