John Darnielle has the kind of voice that teeters on the brink of divine and writes transcendent lyrics that carry you into far off universes. On The Mountain Goats newest record In League with Dragons he once again pulls you into his world with aplomb. Across the twelve tracks we are thrust into what feels like a world of recovery. By the record’s conclusion, we feel encouraged to persevere, and this defiance in the face of all odds has often been the central focus of Darnielle’s writing – I use writing here because he is one of modern rock’s most wonderful lyricists, and his words step off into the realm of poetry.
A cousin turned me towards Mountain Goats at around fifteen and I held candlelit vigils nightly to The Sunset Tree in moments of deep despair and teenage longing. As I ventured out of this self-agrandizing world I no longer felt the need to follow the band and somewhat foolishly I fell away. Only recently, in the lead up to this record being released did I remind myself of their existence. In League with Dragons has once again put me back onto the path and with so much material to dig into, I look forward with relish to catching up with all that I’ve missed.
The album opens poignantly, reflectively with ‘Done Bleeding’ – we are ‘leaving the old place nicer than I found it’ – a message of maturity and growth, in keeping with the album’s themes of maturity. The instrumentation, as ever with The Mountain Goats, allows Darnielle’s lyrics to sit centre-stage. However, in the moments of emotional intensity, such as ‘Passaic 1975’, the mix lets the musicians breathe. This is a band well-versed in the importance of loud and quiet – the sonic variation is enticing and moments of controlled chaos are delivered masterfully. You can imagine Darnielle bringing these songs to his band with a clear vision – this is his world that we are being invited into, and he knows exactly how he wants his songs to be transferred to us.
The record’s best song is ‘Doc Gooden’. Here, the ideas of growth and change are solidified in song that relays the concepts of youth and age. Darnielle said himself: ‘Old wizards and old athletes are the same: they were once magic and they were everyone’s hero and they could do anything. […] But they sacrifice their entire bodies to what they do – so do wizards.’ This idea of recognition, of sacrifice, emerge in the song’s chorus: ‘When my name was everywhere, none of you were there’. We all want recognition, in some way shape or form, even if we are not explicitly conscious that this is what we desire. The Mountain Goats hit you with a sucker punch realisation that we are all slaves, in some ways, to the adoration of those around us – we sacrifice so much just to be told that we ‘did good’. I’ve heard that as we age this need for recognition disappears; old geezers in their forties will tell you they don’t particularly care what people think of them – and yet they often try so hard to remain relevant, in whatever way shape or form.
Owen Pallett produced this album and his strings sit across the songs without ever becoming their focus. It’s a testament to his ability as a songwriter that he can contribute and guide so fruitfully, without taking away from the vision of the songwriters he works with. The diversity of the sound is a step away from the usual Mountain Goats modus operandi and I feel it adds a great deal to their music. As I return to their back catalogue, I am curious to see how it ends in In League With Dragons – a wonderful, exceptional, emotional record that hits all the right notes, as it were. If you enjoy profound lyricism and beautiful instrumentation, look no further.