John Darnielle has never exactly been sporadic with his creative output. His band The Mountain Goats reliably issues new albums every 12-18 months, and Darnielle has penned multiple novels, articles, and webzines besides. But lately, man, his musical synapses are really firing.
Recorded during the same frenetic burst of creativity in March 2020 that yielded October’s excellent Getting into Knives, Dark in Here is the third Mountain Goats album to come out in the past 15 months. But while Getting into Knives and Dark in Here were recorded at roughly the same time, the latter doesn’t play like a batch of leftover songs or sound like a continuation of the former’s sunnier themes and sounds.
Dark in Here is, for lack of a better descriptor, darker in tone musically than Getting into Knives. The cheer behind songs like “Picture of My Dress” or “Get Famous” are replaced by feelings of claustrophobia and creeping anxiety.
You can hear it on the album’s rowdiest track, “The Destruction of the Superdeep Kola Borehole Tower.” Named after a failed Soviet attempt to drill to the center of the earth, it’s a taut, propulsive rocker with lyrics that match how one would feel while (and yes, I know the following sounds ludicrous) inside a tunnel, attempting to bore through Earth’s core. While Darnielle’s narrative skill and the group’s well-established chemistry help convey the song’s tension, it’s special guest Spooner Oldham on electric piano who adds just the right flourishes to take the track to the next level.
It doesn’t require real-life events that sound like the plot to a Jules Verne novel to talk about darkness and dread, though. Given Darnielle’s documented love of the genre, “The Slow Part on Death Metal Albums” comes across as a partial autobiography on the emotions teeming inside a teenage metalhead. The mid-tempo track pulsates with turmoil and how those softer interludes in heavy music lead the song’s main character to contemplate their negative thoughts and feelings.
The songs on Dark in Here are narratively intertwined by darkness, in thoughts, deeds, and locations. Thematically, it’s the opposite of the cheer and ebullience of Getting into Knives. But what connects the latter to the former is in the actual performances. Dark in Here has interesting arrangements, the electric piano and an occasional horn adding new layers to the Mountain Goats’ sonic palette. And much like on Getting into Knives, the band’s comfort together is what propels the entire affair. There’s a comfortable looseness to their playing. While these tunes may indeed be dark, you can’t help but be drawn in by the lightness and ease that permeates throughout.