Few artists can produce a large body of work without sacrificing quality over time. John Danielle is one of those people who can continue to create with incredible results. He put out his third novel The Devil House in January of this year. He released two LPs and a live double album in 2020 followed by one LP and another live double album in 2021. And now the founder and bandleader of indie lo-fi rock group The Mountain Goats is back with his latest project Bleed Out.
An homage to the action movies he watched while writing the songs, Bleed Out tells stories of the violent quest for vengeance and the consequences that would naturally occur. The album cover is stylized like a 70’s grindhouse action flick, reflecting Darnielle’s love for the medium and inspiration for the album.
The Mountain Goats are no stranger to concept albums. I use “concept” in the loosest sense. A traditional concept album sets a straightforward theme and sticks to it with rigidity. The Mountain Goats use theme as a locus around which to tell stories and explore ideas. The concept may actually create the literal meaning behind a song. Or it may serve as a lens through which Darnielle can explore his thoughts.
Beat The Champ focuses on the unlikely subject of professional wrestling. In League With Dragons uses Dungeons and Dragons as its narrative thread. Goths was an experiment in making an album inspired by 80’s goth culture ala The Cure and Bauhaus without implementing any guitars. And the incomparable All Hail West Texas tells stories that originate in the state but are not designated only for people only who live or have visited there. But where Darnielle and Company succeed when other concept albums fail is that you don’t have to be a wrestling nerd to enjoy Beat The Champ. And you don’t need to serve weekly as a dungeon master to appreciate In League With Dragons. The messages are universal even if it’s a niche mode in which they are transported.
Although not meant to be listened to as one cohesive narrative, the arc of Bleed Out has a definitive beginning, middle, and end. This shows that Darnielle’s storytelling chops extend far beyond the novel. The album starts with “Training Montage” which literally tells the story of a person training themselves to enact revenge. And it concludes with “Bleed Out” which finds our character coming to terms with his own mortality as he slowly dies from gunshot wounds.
In between we find stories like “Hostages” which contains the chilling line “we may run out of bullets, but we’re never gonna run out of hostages.” And if you were ever wondering what would happen if you got injured without a well-stocked first aid kit, then “Need More Bandages” is the track for you.
My favorite single, “Wage Wars Get Rich Die Handsome,” is an anthem dripping with irony. It will get you fist pumping and shouting along to the chorus, even if the message against your deepest held beliefs. This is the song Colonel Stuart would have been listening to while doing naked Karate katas at the beginning of Die Hard 2, had it existed at the time. “WWGRDH” is easily the most punk rock song The Mountain Goats have ever written. And it’s an absolute banger.
Over the nearly 30 years of recording, The Mountain Goats have explored a wide variety of musical stylings. And they amassed a significant back catalogue. If you asked ten Mountain Goats fans to give you the best entry point for the band, you might get ten different answers. Some might insist you start with the early, lo-fi boombox recordings such as Full Force Galesburg. Others might say All Hail West Texas, the last of the raw jams (until Songs for Pierre Chauvin) is not only the best album but the best place to begin. Still others might point you to their most “commercially successful” records such as The Sunset Tree which features “This Year” or Tallahassee with the Tik-Tok sensation “No Children.” So where does Bleed Out measure up with this question?
Truth be told, there is no definitive sound to The Mountain Goats. Aside from Darnielle’s unique and at times nasally voice along with his absolutely compelling storytelling, the surrounding elements change. So, start wherever you like. Bleed Out is by far the most rock forward album the band has ever created. In that sense, it isn’t necessarily representative of their previous work. However, it’s still very clearly their record. So, while you may not find anything else in their catalogue as fast, heavy, and even punk, you’re still getting the goods.
Bleed Out is a fun album in which the band sounds like they’re having a great time. And aside from the art of it all, it’s incredibly compelling and attractive to listen to an artist who seems to enjoy what they’re doing. Which is exactly what you get here. This might be the most fun you have singing along to songs about John Rambo this year or any year. Follow The Mountain Goats on Instagram. Order a physical copy from Merge Records HERE. And stream Bleed Out HERE.