An Exploration of the Goth Subculture with the Mountain Goats

Last Friday, the Mountain Goats released their 16th studio album, and after listening to it over and over again and reading through the carefully crafted lyrics of every song on the record, I finally feel I can discuss it. It is truly a credit to the ingenuity of John Darnielle that after 23 years, he is still creating albums that cover new ground and are valuable additions to the Mountain Goats’ extensive catalogue. I have yet to be disappointed by one of their releases, and Goths is certainly no exception. The album delves into the goth counterculture from the perspectives of a wide variety of characters, and packages these stories in lush production and captivating songs.

Before we get into the lyrics, the undeniable greatest feature of the Mountain Goats, let’s talk about what sets the tone of Goths apart from their previous albums. Upon first listening to the album, I couldn’t help but notice how much more often keyboards are featured as the primary chording instrument. It took me a little while to realize that there are actually no electric or acoustic guitars on the record at all. The absence of John Darnielle’s percussive strumming is noticeable and perhaps missed, but this opens up the album to truly take on a voice of its own. In keeping with the last couple of Mountain Goats albums, each track features beautifully arranged woodwinds and vocal layers to give Goths a rich, textured sound. The use of layers on Goths marks it as possibly their most produced album yet, with each detail carefully considered in the final product.

Now we’ll get into the story told on Goths. I will make one thing exceptionally clear: Everything beyond this point is my interpretation of the record, which means I can’t say for certain what any of these songs are about. If you want to discover the album on your own first, you should stop reading here, but feel free to come back later to see how your own ideas line up with mine.

The album opens with “Rain in Soho”, a dark, pounding anthem which sets the teeth on edge. The opening verses are threatening and abstract. While at first it is difficult to tell what the song is trying to convey, the last couple of verses invite the listener to join the narrator, who is offering a place to go to be with other “lost souls” in a dismal town. “Rain in Soho” is an invitation into the goth subculture.

The next song keeps the story in England. Although “Andrew Eldritch is Moving Back to Leeds” has a poppy, joyful bounce to it, there’s a certain despair which lingers under the surface. The repeated theme in this song is that no one seems able to leave the town of Leeds permanently. Andrew Eldritch is returning to find all his old acquaintances who dreamed of leaving still there, a dingy club, and a feeling of malaise and stagnation. It has the kind of hopeless feeling reflected in the opening track, the type that could birth a goth scene.

The album moves forward now to a character that I feel is the same through three songs. The location shifts to the Los Angeles area, where we are given the perspective of a person within the goth scene who is not so sure that he belongs in the subculture. “The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement” is a hesitant song, with a hint of fear coming through John Darnielle’s wavering voice. In “We Do It Different on the West Coast”, a similar character is describing what he has heard about goth scenes around the U.S. and in Europe. It’s as if he is contemplating whether he might fit better in one of these other cities, but he doesn’t seem willing to make a change. “Unicorn Tolerance”, while seeming to have the confidence that the previous songs lack, does not describe those within the goth scene in any kind of favourable light as the narrator seems to long for the person he used to be.

“Stench of the Unburied” marks another change in perspective. This song and “Wear Black” feature the voice of someone who revels in the goth community. “Stench of the Unburied” reflects on goth rock, a lifestyle of all-nighters, and drug use with a certain fondness, despite acknowledging the danger associated with these activities (not the music itself, there’s obviously no danger in that). “Wear Black” describes a dedication to the fashion. The narrator is proudly an outsider within regular society, and enjoys the fact that his unique identity is on permanent display.

The next few songs give us the perspectives of musicians in and around the goth scene, but interestingly all of the characters represented here are past the prime of their careers. “Paid in Cocaine” tells the story of a former goth musician who has since left that life, and is reflecting on his past with a sense of fond nostalgia. “Rage of Travers” depicts a non-goth musician who is baffled by goth music and its aesthetic, and looks at it with a certain disgust. He feels irrelevant as he is forced to play on the same bill as these musicians that he does not understand. “Shelved” expands on that same feeling, but in this case the musician is frustrated with an industry that is pushing him towards goth music, and he is considering retiring rather than performing music which he evidently hates.

Finally, the last two songs show us how goth music has fared when all is said and done. “For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands” shows us the perspective of goth musicians after the scene has begun to fade. Goth music may not have the prominence it once had, but there are still many who keep it alive out of love for the art form, and still audiences who appreciate it. “Abandoned Flesh” ends the tale with a certain sense of comfort. It describes once revered goth bands that have done just fine for themselves, and can now rest easy. There is a certain perception outside of the goth subculture that these goth bands faded into relative obscurity after the “fad” wore off, but this song contradicts that idea by shedding a little light on the legacy left by artists like Siouxsie and the Banshees.

Well there you have it, one man’s opinion on Goths by the Mountain Goats. I don’t think I’ve ever written an article that went into this kind of detail, but it was pretty fun, so let me know if it was something you enjoyed and whether you agree or disagree with my interpretations. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this wonderful album.

~Dave

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