Another year, another Mountain Goats album—and fans are nowhere near tired of them, nor should they be. John Darnielle’s finely tuned pen has never faltered, even as the band gets up there in years. The songs on their 21st studio album Bleed Out do all tread the same general ground—revenge fantasies conjured up from the depths of vintage action flicks—and if one song about that doesn’t compel you, then perhaps twelve of them is a hard sell. But Darnielle’s listeners have come along for a focused ride before, on albums like Goths or Beat The Champ or Tallahassee. Thus we trust Darnielle to find his footing, and indeed he has. Whether “Training Montage” becomes a cultural touchstone like “This Year” remains to be seen, but it doesn’t matter. Mountain Goats fans aren’t here for hits, we are here for Truth. No, not facts—I’m talking about Truth. We may not be out here exacting bloody revenge on our enemies, but we Understand it all the same.
It’s helpful that nearly every Mountain Goats album can be an entry point—there aren’t any I would classify as “difficult.” Some have rougher edges than others (especially in recording techniques), or song titles that send you to Wikipedia, but all wear their musical heart on their sleeve, and Bleed Out is no different. (It’s an interesting contrast to Darnielle’s novels, such as his latest Devil House, which was full of nuance and questions and frankly left me unsettled.) Mostly filled with mid-to-uptempo grooves interspersed with legitimate bangers like “Wage Wars Get Rich Die Handsome,” it’s a seriously catchy record, with lyrical musings punctuated by chantable hooks—in other words, it’s a Mountain Goats record, and a damned good one at that.
Revenge isn’t a new concept in Mountain Goats songs, either: only look to “The Day The Aliens Came.” But The Sunset Tree recordings are well known as being very personal to Darnielle, and although many listeners have found solace in them and identify with his childhood experiences, there will always remain at least a hint of voyeurism for me in those songs. Bleed Out instead centers anthems with characters pulled from the annals of pop culture, and it cuts deep in its simplicity, with many of the songs hitting full throttle like a punch to the face. I’ve seen some shock expressed that this band could rock quite so hard, and to the doubters I would point out such hard-hitting songs as “See America Right” and “Lovecraft In Brooklyn” in their back catalog. But if any naysayers exist, they were absolutely silenced by the performance given this past Wednesday 8/31 at Webster Hall.
The Mountain Goats have only grown more popular as time goes by, and it’s well earned. I’ve seen them in tiny venues that I myself played; I’ve seen them in mid-size rooms. I’ve seen them enough that I genuinely cannot remember each venue’s name. But the crowd never fails to wear their hearts on their sleeves as well, and even in such a large space (the capacity at Webster is around 1400 people but it always feels far bigger to me) it seemed just as intimate as the first time I saw them over a decade ago. Mountain Goats shows are a dialogue between Darnielle and his audience, with the rest of the band as facilitators.
The Mountain Goats (photo by Edwina Hay)
The energy in the room was palpable from the very first song, “Aulon Raid,” and continued to electrify the crowd through songs both new and old. The Mountain Goats have a famously massive array of songs to choose from when touring—over 600, from a glance at their discography and my hard drive—and older tracks like “Minnesota” from Full Force Galesburg sprang to life with the full band treatment, silencing critics who may find older lo-fi records to be superior. They are in my opinion simply different. While some bands who have been active since the 90’s rely heavily on older material, The Mountain Goats always present a well-versed mix, and the audience seemed to know the words to the Bleed Out tracks just as well as the ubiquitous “This Year,” despite the recentness of the release. We all have our old favorites of course, and high points for me in the set were “Estate Sale Sign,” “The Diaz Brothers” (on which I hurt myself headbanging), and “Alpha In Tauris,” which came during the familiar solo acoustic portion of the set.
Yet although the Mountain Goats have been Darnielle’s since the inception, the band he has gathered around him are no mere afterthought, and when they returned to the stage for the final set of songs they were greeted with rapturous applause. Truly the Mountain Goats are a four-piece now for real, made up of longtime collaborators Peter Hughes on bass, Jon Wurster on drums, and Matt Douglas on keys, guitar, and saxophone, and I can’t imagine the lineup getting any better.
Darnielle is notorious for his hilarious and poignant banter between songs, and his wit was no less sharp at this performance, from introducing “Before I Got There” (“this song has less sex but it has more dead bodies, so it’s kind of a wash”) to a commentary on divorce against the backdrop of a jazzy intro to “No Children” (“spite attains the speed of sound”) and a shoutout to Celtic Frost. It was also an absolute treat to see Darnielle pick up an electric guitar—he’s always shredded on the acoustic, but this was like a trip to a mirror universe, only one with less evil and more rock.
The last song on Bleed Out closed the night out here as well, and the title track was as cathartic live as the surrender declared by the protagonist in the lyrics: “I’m gonna head into the darkness / I’m gonna head into the light.” There is indeed both light and darkness in the Mountain Goats, beauty and tragedy and the unfathomable mixture of the two, and after years of seeing them I’m convinced it’s just as potent to share that with each other before the stage like supplicants as it it to experience it alone, hands clutched over headphones. They’ve been there for us before, and they’ve proven they will be there for us again.
(Speaking of being there for each other, shoutout to the tall dude in the balcony who moved so myself and another short person could see. May you get tickets to every show you ever want.)
The Mountain Goats (photo by Edwina Hay)
The opening band for this show was Garcia Peoples, who offered up chill music that was jammy without being boring. They were a good choice for opener as they kept a nice vibe going that kept the crowd primed but didn’t wear them out. Of particular note was the very intuitive drumming, which lifted the songs along rather than taking over the spacey feel. They will be at Webster Hall again on October 3rd, opening for Tinariwen.
Scroll down for setlist, fan shot videos and pics of the show (photos by Edwina Hay)
Setlist: Aulon Raid, Make You Suffer, Minnesota, Mark on You, Estate Sale Sign, Extraction Point, Tidal Wave, Liza Forever Minnelli (with Matt Douglas)**, Alpha in Tauris**, Feed This End**, I’ve Got the Sex**, Before I Got There, The Diaz Brothers, Guys on Every Corner, Choked Out, Bones Don’t Rust, No Children, Training Montage Encore: The Slow Parts on Death Metal Albums, Palmcorder Yajna, Up the Wolves, This Year, Bleed Out
** performed Solo
THE MOUNTAIN GOATS