"I'm hardcore/But I'm not that hardcore," a young man muses in the early chapters of the Mountain Goats' 2017 album, Goths, and in those seven words, group leader John Darnielle neatly summarizes the album's overriding theme: what it's like not to fit in, even among those folks who don't fit in. Goths is a concept album that ponders episodes in the life of a handful of characters living in the West Coast goth scene of the '80s and '90s. The protagonists range from the young and curious figuring out their place in a community of "leather and lace and good friends," to those confronting the onset of middle age and the knowledge that you may be goth on the inside, but you're a grownup with a job and a house as far as the outside world is concerned. Goths is an album less about the trappings of the goth culture or even the music (though both certainly play a part in the story) than about folks making sense of their role in a subculture (and the larger world, too), and the album lives and dies on John Darnielle's skills as a storyteller. Thankfully, the songwriter and novelist is in superb form here, making his characters human and recognizable, and defining their lives with genuine compassion and wit, even when they're playing gigs for cocaine or trying to remember when the Batcave closed. And musically, Goths sounds fresh and buoyant; the performances have been stripped of guitars, with Darnielle's electric piano and Matt Douglas' woodwind arrangements carrying the weight of the melodies, and in a perverse way the fact the music sounds so decisively un-goth serves the songs better than if Darnielle and company had tried to mimic the Sisters of Mercy or Gene Loves Jezebel (both of whom play key roles in different songs). Just as 2015's Beat the Champ was an album about professional wrestling that you didn't have to care about wrestling to enjoy, Goths is an album about the upsides and downsides of purposefully walking out of step with the world (and "Check me out -- I can't blend in/Check me out -- I'm young and ravishing" in "Wear Black" sums up the joys of being a misfit as well as anyone could ask) that doesn't require a familiarity with goth's past or present, and it's smart, fascinating, and tremendously satisfying. After over 20 years of writing fine songs and making great records, John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats are actually getting better and more interesting, and Goths is a genuine triumph.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming