John Darnielle is a man of many interests. As the creative force behind indie mainstay the Mountain Goats, Darnielle has used his music to explore a ridiculously wide range of topics: Dungeons and Dragons (In League with Dragons), rural America (All Hail West Texas), the Bible (The Life of the World to Come), professional wrestling (Beat the Champ), and, uh, goths (Goths).
Now, Darnielle is getting into knives on the Mountain Goats' 19th studio album. But whereas the records above were centered around a theme, Getting Into Knives is looser and wilder, not beholden to an overarching story or characters. The result is the Mountain Goats' best album in years, one that's more accessible than 2017's downtrodden Goths and more varied and energetic than 2019's In League with Dragons.
Darnielle's lyrics have always drawn on a deep well of historical, mythical, literary, and pop culture knowledge. References to DB Cooper, Romulus and Remus, SunsetMagazine, Red Shoes Dugan, and Burger King's Crispy Chicken Sandwich all fit naturally into the worlds he creates. Getting Into Knives builds on this predilection with broader instrumentation and arrangements, coming in far jazzier and AM radio-friendly than the median Mountain Goats album. Bluesy flourishes, 1970s lite rock, 1980s power sax—even a Mellotron—build a sonic template that's unique in the Mountain Goats catalog.
Lead single "As Many Candles As Possible" opens with a chugging guitar reminiscent of Jethro Tull's 1971 rock anthem "Locomotive Breath". At the opposite end of the spectrum is "Tidal Wave", which starts with a one-note bassline that's slowly overrun by loose percussion and piano chords. The band add sounds one by one—woodwinds, idle piano tinkles, layered vocals—before letting them all sink back into silence. It's expansive and hypnotic, like the sound of ocean waves coming in and out forever.
In between those poles are tracks like "Pez Dorado", the kind of jangly AM radio jam you'd hear decades ago on a cross-country drive, deep in the desert where only one station reaches you. Album highlight "Get Famous" has a swanky, swaggering vibe, with a wailing sax and electric guitar. Vocally, Darnielle sounds confident and powerful, shouting the sing-a-long chorus and name-dropping the inimitable Wesley Willis with a grin.
A good point of comparison might be Iron and Wine's 2013 album Ghost on Ghost. That record found Sam Beam abandoning the formula he'd used for a decade, forgoing his dusty back-porch folk tales for a new range of sounds. Upright bass, bowed vibraphone, and clavinet peppered the tracks with jazz flourishes and blues-adjacent riffs. But whereas Beam veered sharply off course to explore a new world of sound all at once, Getting Into Knives represents a steady evolution for Darnielle and company.
A lot of credit for this album's success goes to drummer Jon Wurster, whose percussion absolutely lights up the record. But Darnielle as frontman stands out as well, and Getting Into Knives shows that he still can surprise two-plus decades into his career.