Album Review: The Mountain Goats — ‘Getting Into Knives’

The Mountain Goats — ‘Getting Into Knives,’ out Oct. 23.

The Mountain Goats (erstwhile Iowan John Darnielle with Peter Hughes, Matt Douglas and Jon Wurster) are indie folk legends of their own design, led largely by Darnielle’s singular and incessant creative churnings. Getting Into Knives, the Mountain Goats’ 19th studio album (and second of 2020) was recorded in less than a week at the beginning of March. It’s out today, Oct. 23, on Merge Records.

The set begins a little listlessly, emerging first with the near-rockabilly of “Corsican Mastiff Stride” before sliding into the Hammond B-3 organ drones and saxophones of the impossibly ironic “Get Famous.”

On “Picture of My Dress,” Darnielle writes as a recently divorced woman traveling through the Southwest, taking pictures of herself in her wedding dress. As she notes: “I only wore it once.” This strummer is quintessential Mountain Goats music, as everyday-operatic and damn clever as it gets.

“Tidal Wave” sees Darnielle wielding these then-heavy, now-prophetic lines:

It’s not the barnacles that do all the damage
Figure this out too late
It’s not the destination that makes the difference
It’s the freight

Everything becomes a blur from six feet away
Get used to this
Every card ever turned over remains in place
Get used to this

If the first seven songs are the spine of the knife of this album, the following six surely are the blade. The mood morphs into something else here. Sheep crop up often. Fish, rats and wolves do too. It’s a subdued musical affair, with sparse arrangements heavy on piano, but there’s a sinister note in Darnielle’s yowl that seems to melodically embody these many days of American malaise. Humor here is of the sad-laugh variety. In “Rat Queen,” Darnielle imagines a “victory sweet as the dregs of the fast food dumpster.” And if you are looking for further evidence of Darnielle as what Rolling Stone called “rock’s finest storyteller,” you will find it in the closing title track:

I sought wisdom from the sages
Consulted with master tacticians
Met up with some guys who wouldn’t tell me their last names
They specialized in non-conventional munitions

These 13 songs aren’t overtly working towards some planned-upon concept like 2015’s Beat the Champ about professional wrestling or 2019’s In League with Dragons about Dungeons & Dragons. Admonitions against the rifts of tribalism are here, though. So are dark visions of freedom as paranoia made manifest. That might be all the concept we have room left for this year.

If that’s the case, the Mountain Goats have got it about right: Getting into knives is a hell of a lot easier than getting out of them.

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