Album Review: The Mountain Goats – ‘Getting Into Knives’
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In his decades-long career, John Darnielle’s greatest strength has proven to be his ability to sing from the perspective of characters who may be nothing like him and make his inhabitation of them believable. Storytelling is one thing, and he does it often, but the connection to characters is striking.
On the Mountain Goats’ latest album, their twelfth as a full band, and nineteenth overall, Darnielle casts himself in his strangest role yet. The result is one of the best songs in his career. Just a few tracks into Getting Into Knives sits “Picture of My Dress.” The song was first played at a show in 2019 at The City Winery in New York, and tells a story Darnielle found on Twitter from the poet Maggie Smith. He spins us a yarn of a woman taking her wedding dress on a Weekend at Bernie’s style adventure, taking pictures of it on her journey. The world-building gets so detailed that when he mentions getting a chicken sandwich with too much mayo, you can imagine it vividly.
Knives is the second release from the Mountain Goats this year. Back in April, Darnielle recorded Songs For Pierre Chuvin, a collection of songs inspired by A Chronicle of the Last Pagans, into his Panasonic FT500 boombox. That album was a return to form, the first recorded in such a way in a decade. Now, each of the Mountain Goats’ two modes has been utilized this year. Knives features the full band of Darnielle, Jon Wurster, Peter Hughes, and Matt Douglas. For fans, getting both albums is likely one of the few positives for such a chaotic year. Fortunately, Darnielle gives us an adage for a chaotic year on “Tidal Wave” – “not every wave is a tidal wave.” It’s a useful phrase to roll around in your head as each day brings a new little terror with it. Not everything that causes us dread in the long term. Darnielle’s voice is cooing and calm, accompanied by the elegant lilt of woodwinds.
Darnielle is similarly accompanied by Douglas’ saxophone on “The Last Place I Saw You Alive.” A devastating piano-driven ballad, it’s a beautiful ode to how little it takes after losing someone to be reminded of them. “It’s just the way the traffic veers / Haven’t driven down these streets in years / But then I pass the last place I saw you alive.” It’s performed in a way that makes it seem fit for intimate stages, veteran red curtains behind it.
Getting Into Knives keeps up a lovely balance – it’s fresh, clear-eyed production acting along with its somber, contemplative songwriting. While that dichotomy is by no means new, Darnielle’s ability to keep each tone measured is masterful. Though polarizing among fans, the single “Get Famous” exemplifies this opposition while underlining how intertwined they often are. Lines like “You’ve been waiting for this ever since you were young / Be careful not to choke on your tongue” depict the dark side of even a gasp of joy like achieving one’s dreams. Combine that with a jam-band-like finale and the biting pleasure is palpable, For a group with an extensive back catalog, but a recent string of solid-if-unmemorable releases, it’s inspiring to watch them finally produce another truly great one.
Disappointing / Average/ Good / Great / Phenomenal
Eric Bennett | @seething_coast
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