Of Sound Mind | The Mountain Goats’ “Getting Into Knives”

Of Sound Mind is a biweekly blog about new albums, old albums, forgotten albums, overrated albums and any other type of listening experience from staff writer Lucas DiBlasi.

By Lucas DiBlasi, Senior Staff Writer

The Mountain Goats are an important band.

No, they don’t have hundreds of millions of streams on Spotify, and no, they’re not selling out large stadiums. But young-adult author John Green credits them with helping him manage his anxiety, and there’s a podcast called “I Only Listen to The Mountain Goats.” People don’t say that they “like” The Mountain Goats — they say they are “huge fans” in a way that implies those two words don’t suffice. There are countless Mountain Goats couplets tattooed on bodies, and countless more tattooed in minds.

The Mountain Goats will release “Getting Into Knives” on Friday, and the album is a spacious, jazzy take on their often folk-oriented style. If John Darnielle, lead singer and original member of The Mountain Goats, described earlier records as “three chords and a yelp,” the new album is more like “16 chords and some yelps.” As one would expect from such an experienced set of musicians, the album is a cohesive world, and although it’s not an astounding success, it’s a comfortable and interesting place to spend some time.

Darnielle has written at least 800 songs, and “Getting Into Knives” is the band’s 29th album. The band released its first recording in 1991, and originally consisted only of Darnielle, who was known for his lo-fi recordings (into a Panasonic boombox) and his complex and emotive lyrics. Since the early 2000s, The Mountain Goats has expanded in both content and members, becoming more autobiographical in themes and extensive in instrumentation.

In its current iteration, The Mountain Goats consists of four members — singer and songwriter Darnielle, drummer Jon Wurster, as well as multi-instrumentalists Matt Douglas and Peter Hughes. The core members — joined by many others, including Al Green’s organist, Charles Hodges — recorded “Getting Into Knives” in Memphis, Tennessee.

The Mountain Goats have ventured into soundscapes beyond beat-poetry folk many times over their career, such as in their critically acclaimed 2017 album “Goths,” which was heavier than their usual fare. But it’s hard to find an album as wide and jazzy as “Getting Into Knives” anywhere in their repertoire.

After a fun, dog-loving opener in “Corsican Mastiff Stride,” Hodges’ organ blends with a saxophone in the background of “Get Famous,” in which the subject tells someone to “get famous/ You should be famous.” It’s hard to tell if the song is ironic, but Darnielle’s lyrics have rarely been merely surface level.

The album’s lyrics mirror the impressionism of the music. Darnielle deftly weaves lines together in the wonderful “Pez Dorado,” not quite outlining a story, per se, but giving the highlights of a wonderful summer day. The themes of the album revolve around ships leaving shore, animals in distress and fame, never quite locking into a straightforward message but leaving the listener with a unified feeling the whole way through.

A few songs are a bit more explicit, however, as Darnielle shows off how well he can put the listener into a time and place, or shed a little light on someone’s frame of mind.

In album highlight “Picture of My Dress,” Darnielle sings as the subject, a divorcee traveling across America with her wedding dress, taking pictures of the dress in various unimportant locations. The song was inspired by a tweet from poet Maggie Smith in 2018 that outlines the plot. Darnielle posted a picture of him working on a demo of the song a few hours after his original response.

Another more specific song is “The Last Place I Saw You Alive,” a slow, gorgeous meditation on place, death and grief. The Mountain Goats have sung of such themes hundreds of times before, but it would be hard to find a time where they did it over such a beautiful instrumental — a slow jazz piano ballad, with swept, brushed drums and a saxophone sounding off in the distance.

In fact, if there was an album that only had the instrumentals of “Getting Into Knives,” I would listen to it on its own, which is not something you can say about any of their other albums. Darnielle’s lyricism carries a lot of their songs, and not in a bad way at all, but in this new album, his rather whiny but honest voice is suddenly backed up with the heartfelt chimes of a piano, and the feelings produced — melancholic or ecstatic — are exquisite.

Sometimes, songs are a little off-kilter, such as when the speaker is a rat “acolyte,” whispering dreams of the destruction of the overworld to their queen in “Rat Queen.” The song, however, is a hard-driving southern-rock groove, and if the subject matter was ever a drawback, the music makes up for it.

The Mountain Goats have songs that will tear you apart, songs that will put you back together, songs that will make you laugh and songs that will make you cry. Some do all four over the course of a scarce three minutes. “Getting Into Knives” has a little bit of each of these capabilities that have allowed the band to play such a large part of many people’s lives, even if it may not immediately shine as their best album ever.

If nothing else, “Getting Into Knives” is a wonderful album that could lead you into a more in-depth exploration of their extensive back catalogue. Doing so would be worth your time, because there are good reasons why I say The Mountain Goats are an important band. “Getting Into Knives” is a 7.6/10.

Lucas DiBlasi is a music composition and digital narrative and interactive design double major. You can write to him at [email protected].