My eldest son, who heard so much folk music as a baby, has now for perhaps four or five years listened to very little else but the Mountain Goats, which unavoidably means I have been exposed to their music too. His predilection makes long drives additionally trying when he has any choice of music, since with few exceptions the songs are not music to drive to. I have nevertheless become acclimatised to them. There are a couple of songs on the previous album, Beat the Champ, as well as one or two from earlier albums, that I like well enough to put on myself when nobody else is around. I even went along with my two eldest children when there was a Mountain Goats concert at a surprisingly small venue in Brussels (my eldest also attended the same tour’s show in Amsterdam, which I thought was taking things a bit far).
My grandmother used to watch the wrestling on television, back in the days when there was only one screen in the house to watch anything on. Although it was never something I would watch from choice, there’s something achingly evocative about the way the song “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” describes a lonely and put-upon child’s fixation:
Before a black and white TV in the middle of the night
I'm lying on the floor, I'm bathed in blue light
With the telecast in Spanish, I can understand some
And I need justice in my life, here it comes
Look high, it’s my last hope
Chavo Guerrero coming off the top rope
This kind of sympathetic recognition is something I find even more strongly in their latest album, released this year. The unifying theme of Beat the Champ was wrestling; that of Goths is the 80s youth subculture of those who called themselves (in South London at least) “Goffs”.
There are definite dangers in a youth subculture that revels in morbidity and decay, to the extent of using satanism as a style accessory. Nevertheless, as someone with a liking for the Gothic side of Romanticism (far more responsive to the “alone and palely loitering” than to the “fluttering and dancing in the breeze”) I was always rather sympathetic to the Goth aesthetic, however cartoonish it can be in comparison to the genuinely Gothic: so many Goths recognisably felt the same pull. There’s also something endearing, as well as a bit pitiful, about alienated teens making a mascot of their alienation, social “outsiders” forming an in-group for outcasts. The way this is then packaged and commodified by the music and fashion industries, making suckers out of those seeking solace, is one of the saddest things about it. The album Goths somehow manages to speak of the phenomenon, or style, with a nostalgic affection and a critical distance that conveys all of this.
I’m not sure how much of the album is straight autobiography, how much is ventriloquizing in imagined lives things the writers have themselves felt, and how much is an inhabiting of the unfelt imagined. I say “writers”, as there are two writers credited, but the bulk of the writing on this, as on all the other Mountain Goats albums, is by John Darnielle, the central figure in a changing line-up.
The opening track, “Rain in Soho”, has an insistent beat, and backing vocals from the Nashville Symphony Chorus, which makes for a striking combination with the cryptic lyrics.
Although oblique in specifics (perhaps through allusions that escape me), in general terms it’s clear that the song is about time past and faded, the irrecoverably lost:
No morning colder than the first frost
No friends closer than the ones you've lost
Nothing sharper than a serpent's tooth
Nothing harder than the gospel truth
Though you repent and don sackcloth and try to make nice
You can't cross the same river twice
The river goes where the water flows
No one knows when the Batcave closed
One allusion that I do get, and that astonished me, is the Batcave, a London nightclub that was the epicentre of the emergence of the Goth phenomenon (as reported on local news at the time). “Rain in Soho” perhaps suggests a later attempt to find the vanished birthplace of the movement. I saw the news clip linked above when it was first broadcast, or one very like it at about the same time, and as a 12-year-old Batman fan the name stuck with me (as did the vision of those strange young people, who seemed utterly daft yet somehow enviable). When I did encounter Goths in the flesh, maybe five years later, they seemed a sorry bunch of misfits, but by then these were the provincial diehards of an already fading fashion. It fills me with amazement that somebody from the other side of the Atlantic should be singing about the Batcave thirty-odd years later, when to me it was just a brief (though never forgotten) item on the local news.
Goth’s English origins also come up in We Do It Different on the West Coast (“The papers write about it back in England / It’s practically a lifestyle in Berlin / There’s probably some pockets in Ohio / There’s always something happening in Ohio” — like so much else, the reference to Ohio puzzles me; is it true, or does it show how hopelessly provincial the speaker is if even Ohio seems like a “happening” place?). The specifics of the English history of the Goth also crops up in the album’s second track, Andrew Eldritch Is Moving Back to Leeds. This narrates a low-point in a musical career, yet to take off, while other songs on the album hint at musical careers abandoned (Paid in Cocaine: “Baubles and bangles, a lost age / Still all aglow with the radiance of the stage …. Work to pay down the interest on the mortgage / Used to get paid by the gramme”), or not yet abandoned despite never really taking off: “Shelved”, with the chorus “The ride’s over, I know, but I’m not ready to go”; Rage of Travers, “Still draw pretty good in Ontario / Nobody wants to hear the twelve bar blues / From a guy in platform shoes”; For the Portuguese Goth Metal Bands, with the wonderful line “Headline really big festivals every other summer in Brazil”; and Abandoned Flesh: “However big that chorused bass may throb / You and me and all of us are going to have to find a job”. All of these songs could be a memento mori, or a meditation on transitoriness and failed ambition, cast in terms of popular music. Perhaps it’s far-fetched, but I can’t help thinking of the lutes, flutes and sheet music in Dutch Vanitas still-lives.
Some of the songs are written not from the perspective of washed-up performers, but of insecure young fans, uncertain of their place in the outcast in-group that could all too easily exclude them should they be “uncool”. This is hinted at in The Grey King and the Silver Flame Attunement with the lines “Leather and lace and good friends / Most of them good, most of them friendly” and the repeated chorus of “I’m hard core, but I’m not that hard core”; and it’s as good as stated outright in Unicorn Tolerance (“Try hard to look hard behind my blackout sunglasses … Feel shame, real shame, for what my friends must think of me”).
“Leather and lace” in “The Grey King”, a “purple crushed velvet waistcoat” in “Stench of the Unburied” (on which more below), “dark paisley” in “Paid in Cocaine” the whole of the song “Wear Black”: the central importance of clothing, the “look”, to the Goth experience is brought out in all sorts of ways. (“Rage of Travers”, in contrast, has “aviators and a buckskin frontier hat: how come they dress like that?” — a buckskin frontier hat is just about the most un-Goth item of clothing I can imagine, after a lumberjack shirt.)
“We Do It Different on the West Coast”, incidentally, beautifully evokes just how hard it was for young people to get information about musical subcultures before the Internet:
I heard some good things from some friends about Chicago
I gotta see with my own eyes about Chicago…
Skim through such magazines as I can get my hands on
Glue circuit boards to plywood on the weekend
Trellis modulation for the children
There's a whole new world just up around the corner…
“Stench of the Unburied”, already touched on above, stands out from the other songs in sketching a single moment of drink-and-drugs-and-music-fuelled elation crashing into reality:
Heading up the Golden State Freeway toward Eagle Rock
Ice chest full of corona and pineapple crush
It'll take twenty years for the toxins to flush
And when the sirens wail
I know we're going to jail
And outside it's ninety two degrees
And KROQ is playing Siouxsie and the Banshees
To finish, I will mention simply that “Abandoned Flesh”, the final song on the album, ends with the lines:
Because the world will never know or understand
The suffocated splendour of the once and future Goth band
—Paul has been reading the blog since 2008, when Janet drew his attention to a discussion about Brideshead Revisited. He currently trains translators in Brussels.