It’s reasonable to surmise that no modern musician with an already well-stocked discography was better prepared to persist in their creativity through an extended lockdown than John Darnielle. The frontman of the Mountain Goats started his now-lengthy tenure as a recording artist by hunching over a boombox, hitting record with the satisfying clunk of oversized buttons, and wailing his hyper-literate songs into the rudimentary microphone, accompanied by only his guitar. His foundational aesthetic is one of isolation. Boomeranging back to that couldn’t be that difficult. Sure enough, in the sixteen months or so since a debilitating and deadly disease started running roughshod over a global populace woefully unprepared to properly meet the challenge it presented, Darnielle has put out three full-length albums under the Mountain Goats banner, including one, Songs for Pierre Chuvin, recorded on his trusty boombox and released almost immediately in the immediate aftermath of the initial closings for public safety.
The chronology offers the temptation to suppose that the two albums that followed, last year’s Getting Into Knives and the newly released Dark in Here, were similarly generated during bouts of pandemic prolificness. Instead, they’re albums Darnielle recorded with his full band — comprised of bassist Peter Hughes, drummer Jon Wurster, and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas — shortly before face masks became everyday wear. The albums are less a reflection of the solitude of the COVID era and more an extension of Darnielle’s recent push to emphasize Mountain Goats as a proper band rather than merely a platform for his terrifically clever songwriting.
Dark In Here was recorded in an efficient week at the legendary FAME Studio in Muscle Shoals, Alabama. The title Dark in Here implies that Darnielle is writing from a cynicism place, and there are definitely hints of the grim in his lyrical storytelling. The title cut shivers with violence, for instance, Darnielle singing, “Stack my ammunition, be ready when you come/ You who thirst for action, I will give you some/ When the smoke dies down, you can rest assured/ We will know who kept his word.” Album opener “Parisian Enclave” might have music that’s flinty and brisk, but the words suggest the misery of underground dwellers in the City of Light: “Beneath the streets of the city with my brethren/ In the neverending shadow/ Beneath the streets of the city with my brethren/ In the neverending shadow, there I go.”
In showcasing the collective efforts of his bandmates, Darnielle gives the songs an appealing jazzy tilt. They shift with the same exploratory verve that defines his lyrics, every avenue worth exploring and every notion a happy discovery. It’s striking to hear a cut like “Lizard Suit,” its bebop ease swerving into a marvelous free jazz freakout even as Darnielle’s lyrics remain firmly in realm of inspired observation (“Take the trouble to pronounce the street names right/ People like it when you show respect”). The funky organ riffs of “The Destruction of the Kola Superdeep Borehole Tower” and the shuffling, elegant rhythm of “When a Powerful Animal Comes” (“We get so exhausted/ Lost kids, just wasted/ Sleep in short shifts and then rise up to our feet/ Life is short, and life is hard, and life is sweet”) show just how effective the Mountain Goats can maintain their familiar personality while still managing to surprise.
Darnielle pushes this way because he’s a believer, someone who seeks the transformative comfort of a great rock or pop song in the same way as all the other headphoned wanderers who find rejuvenation and release in his odes of propulsive angst and endurance. On “The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums,” which is such a spot-on Mountain Goats song title that it’s a wonder it wasn’t spawned by a well-programmed bot, Darnielle makes it plain: “Let me dance ’til I die/ Turn the volume up high and/ Listen to the slow parts.” Slow or fast parts, Dark in Here is a fine tool to test the upper range of any and all volume controls.