Sincerity clashes with success on the Mountain Goats’ ‘Getting Into Knives’

Mountain Goats
Merge Records/Courtesy

Grade: 3.5 / 5.0

The Mountain Goats, originally a solo project of lead singer John Darnielle, has, since their inception, grown into much more. A number of the group’s albums have been produced as a collective, but it’s only on the band’s newest release, Getting Into Knives, that the new assets and abilities on display threaten artistic truth in favor of artistic advancement.

Darnielle’s voice is one of the Mountain Goats’ signature sounds. It has always been a little nasally, bringing a very human character to his music, similar to Bob Dylan’s singing. On Getting Into Knives, however, he has a few moments where he strays from his realm of amateurish authenticity into atonal warbling. In these situations, the instruments often fail to provide much-needed melody, leaving the song afloat in a sea of pointless noise. These moments are rare, but they stand out enough to be obstacles to the success of Getting Into Knives.

What occurs more frequently than the gray, shrouded jungles of musicality are flower gardens teeming with synthetic life. Some of the album’s songs are saccharine, almost chemical, like farmers driving truckloads of pesticide-laden tomatoes through the Central Valley. Songs such as “Pez Dorado” have a natural and organic coat of paint, but under the hood, they’re simply too overproduced and overwrought to carry real, organic emotional weight.

It’s a difficult balancing act for the band to maintain. On one hand, there is a real desire to produce better sounding and more intricate music — to change up some of their entrenched habits and look outward. And yet, on the other hand, they need to maintain their authenticity, something for which they have long been lauded. It is the balance between the organic and the mechanical, between tradition and progress.

On Getting Into Knives, the band seems more content focusing on the latter. The beatnik lounge music of “Tidal Wave” and “The Last Place I Saw You Alive” is a new but familiar approach for the band, still allowing the intimacy of Darnielle’s voice and lyrics to shine through. This is where a focus on musical advancement succeeds, when the production and instrumentation doesn’t interfere with the voice behind the music.

The internal conflict of Getting Into Knives, both by intent and by happenstance, can be found in the record’s first and final tracks. “Corsican Mastiff Stride” is for hot days driving on dirt roads, a blistering and upbeat song akin to the Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’.” “Getting Into Knives” is very much the opposite, a slow and clomping track that lets Darnielle softly sing his poetry into the microphone. These two songs exemplify the Mountain Goats’ goal with Getting Into Knives: namely, a maintenance of organic authenticity with an improvement of mechanical skill. However, it seems that this goal is too often split into pieces and distributed from song to song, rather than synthesized across the album. Nearly every song falls into one of two categories: the new and the real.

Two songs seem to bridge this gap from opposite sides. “Get Famous” is as upbeat and roaring as “Corsican Mastiff Stride,” with a chattering organ and robust brass instruments. It is reminiscent of Elton John’s work, though it doesn’t have the elucidating energy of ’70s rock that it seems to be striving for. Still, the song’s satirical approach to fame presents a grinning caricature of the dark allure of celebrity, shaking its head and rolling its eyes at the naivete of youth.

The other song working to bind the album together is “The Great Gold Sheep,” which blends Darnielle’s signature storytelling and songwriting with an insidious bass line and a sneaking, pervasive rhythm. In a way, it’s very similar to “Get Famous,” as Darnielle pledges to make a name for himself and create a legacy. This song, too, carries a dark satire to it, one of life wasted pining after fame and fortune.

This similarity is enlightening — a positive affirmation that, yes, the Mountain Goats know what they’re doing. While the album has some flaws in its execution and often feels less personal than it ought to, the arc of Getting Into Knives bends to an evolved but comprehensive entry into the band’s discography. It’s good enough for fans of the Mountain Goats, and good enough to draw some new fans in.