There is always water.
In flowing rivers, in falling raindrops, in waves that will tear us to pieces, in ice cold glasses toasting the living and the dead. Water can carve away at mountainsides over eons, or come crashing over the city in an instant. Animals, fugitives, loners, and crumbling signs of life swim through the depths of the Mountain Goats’ Getting Into Knives, due October 23 via Merge. Like an eight-foot swell of blades, John Darnielle, Matt Douglas, Peter Hughes, and Jon Wurster ground the songs in the impermanence of permanence and the certainty of uncertainty, the casual and subtle threat that everything will come to an end.
“There are a number of ways that you can find yourself underwater,” Darnielle explains.
The Mississippi River slithers alongside the sprawl of Memphis, separating Tennessee from Arkansas. That constant churn fuels the city’s energy, marking it as a hub long before it became a beating heart of soul, blues, and country. The Mountain Goats tapped into that devotion by decamping from North Carolina to Sam Phillips Studio, a spot that played home to sessions for The Cramps and was designed to be a post-show hangout for Elvis Presley. The quartet packed into the studio to bask in its past, alongside guests including Charles Hodges, who played organ on Al Green’s genre-defining hits.
The camaraderie didn’t end at the studio. “We would work until midnight and then return to the house where all four of us were staying, directly across the street from the studio, and hang out for hours on the patio,” Darnielle says. Cohabitation radiates throughout Getting Into Knives, many tracks featuring seven or more musicians playing at once. The skittering warm-up intro and barn-burning density of heavy metal drums on “As Many Candles As Possible” and the giddy shuffle of “Corsican Mastiff Stride” revel in full-band layering and experimentation. “A bunch of people playing together is inherently joyous,” Darnielle says. But as may be expected from Darnielle, even the most joyous-sounding songs can be full of emotional complexity.
Fingerpicked guitar and brushed snare push at the horizon on “Great Gold Sheep”, the narrator listing ways he will make a permanent mark on the world. “I’m going to walk the pathways of the ancients/ I’m going to let my name be known,” Darnielle avows alongside long-legged bass. But then, of course, the last chorus reveals what happens even to those that have written their name across the earth: “Shallow grave among the weeds/ Where the pale worms creep.”
Darnielle, Wurster, and Hughes have been playing together since 2008’s Heretic Pride , while Douglas first contributed to 2015’s Beat the Champ. But the foundation for Getting Into Knives was laid on the road rather than in the studio. The current iteration of the Mountain Goats lineup has toured incessantly in that time, and for their fourth album in three years they lean into bringing the crowd along for the ride. “Whereas normally it’s very much my way to throw something in that reminds you that we’re not like other bands, now I don’t worry as much about that because I trust that the quality that makes us us is pretty hard to kill,” Darnielle laughs. “We just wanted to go ahead and let these songs be more readily available.”
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