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 Recording, 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 “The 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.”
Album highlight “Get Famous” distils the Mountain Goats fervor into a radio-ready pep talk, the concise pop ideal in that trademark rallying cry. But Darnielle’s not the type to wish fame on anyone. Instead, he sings the song’s title as if it were a curse, as Hiss Golden Messenger collaborator Chris Boerner peels off a bronzy guitar lick. Later, despite the insistence on “Tidal Wave” that “even the very proud probably die on their knees,” Hodges’ organ and Douglas’ clarinet produce crystalline towers that reach up to the sun.
That still leaves room for esoteric wordplay and lustrous metaphor. “Taste of hot ashes on my tongue all day/ I took my rifle with me to bed/ But I’m getting into knives,” he sings on the title track with an eerie calm, finding intimacy between villain and victim. Even through the prism of direct, unmoored emotion, Darnielle’s songs can be viewed close up without swallowing you whole. Some can be seen from above, heightening their grasp of “non-conventional munitions” and stalked perpetrators. The steely acoustic guitar and counterpoint percussion ring around Hodges’ organ like a snapshot campfire, while Darnielle threatens murder in the most vague, quiet way possible.
After working as the engineer for 2019’s In League With Dragons, Matt Ross-Spang suggested the band come down to Sam Phillips Recording for a tour—which in turn led to the decision to record in Memphis and to promote him to producer for the follow-up. Recorded in a single week with “magic” microphones salvaged from The Nashville Network, the record’s immediacy burns brightly in desperate contradiction. On “The Last Place I Saw You Alive,” Darnielle details the darkness of knowing you’ll never see a loved one again, and even the potential for hope is subverted. “Us worms turn into butterflies, I guess,” he sings, the heartbreaking sincerity ringing out over resonant piano half a second past the realization that worms aren’t caterpillars. Elsewhere, “Wolf Count” draws sympathy for a wolf being hunted, despite the wolf’s dreams of a good ol’ bloodbath.
“Everything becomes a blur from six feet away,” Darnielle sings on “Tidal Wave.” Written years before any concern for social distancing became a constant subject of conversation, the song insists instead that not every wave is a tidal wave. “Some waves are slow things that cover you without you having noticed,” Darnielle explains. But even that bit of grim perspective has its comforts. “With the album, you either slam the door shut or you open on to the next path,” Darnielle avows. “The trick is to sew up an ending, but at the same time open the doors to the theater and let the sunlight in.” Albums like Getting Into Knives sweep you out that door and away into the center of a vast sea. You may find yourself submerged into inky depths or reaching a purifying breath of air with songs like these. Songs that enlighten despite the inevitability of loss.
There are, after all, a number of ways that you can find yourself underwater.