In 2017, indie rock band the Mountain Goats shocked their fan base with the release of Goths, which was marketed as having “NO COMPED VOCALS. NO PITCH CORRECTION. NO GUITARS.” Although comped vocals and pitch correction were always antithetical to the lo–fi Goats, the band achieved its fame through vocalist John Darnielle’s squawky voice, heavy guitar, and not much else. If Goths was a departure from form, however, then In League with Dragons, released April 26 by Merge Records, is a glorious return, made up almost entirely of lyrical and acoustic callbacks to the past quarter–century of Goats history.
Opening track “Done Bleeding” serves as the perfect transition from Goths to In League with Dragons, downplaying guitar in favor of piano and drums, but ending with a crescendo of flute and strings. Lyrically, it describes Darnielle’s experience as a psychiatric nurse recovering from drug addiction. Next comes “Younger,” which bears a striking resemblance to several earlier Mountain Goats songs, namely the riff of 1993 song “No, I Can’t.” As Darnielle himself said to a fan tweeting about a potential reference to 2006 album Get Lonely, “the song has a number of musical & lyrical references to things written & played by the younger version of the guy who wrote it, yes.”
Once the sax solo on "Younger" ends, “Passaic 1975” tells the story of Ozzy Osbourne, who Darnielle referred to as his “personal totemic wizard” during the album announcement stream. The next song, “Clemency for the Wizard King,” also evokes a clear resemblance to a prior Goats song, in this case “High Hawk Season” from All Eternals Deck, both using harmonized vocals and a light instrumental backing to humbly tell the listener to break free from whatever constrains them. While “High Hawk Season” tells the listener to “Rise if you’re sleeping, stay awake,” “Clemency” implores the audience to “Cut loose the handcuffs / Let him go free.”
Perhaps the song that attracted the most attention and amusement was “Possum by Night,” which is in fact narrated by a surprisingly devout opossum. The animal narrator is treated not as a gimmick but as a sympathetic hero, and the song becomes a better spiritual successor to the much–maligned “Snow Owl” from 1997’s Full Force Galesburg.
The title track bears no initial resemblance to one particular Mountain Goats song, but rather serves as the archetype of many songs which came before, describing common themes such as loneliness and suffering but hope across the horizon, with a guitar and drums combination that sounds indescribably, quintessentially Goatsian. In similar fashion, “Doc Gooden” echoes the entirety of 2015’s Beat the Champ in describing an athlete past their prime, but adds in a complicated guitar riff most reminiscent of All Hail West Texas bonus tracks “Indonesia” and “Midland.”
“Going Invisible 2” is perhaps the only direct sequel on the album, a follow–up to Get Lonely B–side “Going Invisible” and using the theme of cleansing fire central to 2002’s “Alpha Rats Nest” and “New Chevrolet in Flames,” and is followed by “Waylon Jennings Live!,” a spiritual successor both to “Night Light” and “Alphonse Mambo” in describing a narrator at the end of their rope and waiting for their consequences to catch up with them. It’s easy to guess how the scene in “Waylon Jennings Live!” ends, considering the next song says to bring in the “Cadaver Sniffing Dogs.”
The penultimate number, “An Antidote for Strychnine,” serves as the Goats’ signature eleventh–hour number, a quiet mediation on the album’s theme. Prior examples of this include “Never Quite Free,” “Sept 15, 1983,” “Love Love Love,” and “Isaiah 45:23,” whose line “And I won’t get better / But someday I’ll be free” is echoed in the narrator’s “Cut off from the world, I may not ever get free / But I may / One day” in the fourth verse of “An Antidote for Strychnine.”
This leads directly into the upbeat and synth–pop inspired final number “Sicilian Crest,” which features heavy piano and drums. Darnielle described “Sicilian Crest” as lyrically “more reminiscent of early Mountain Goats than anything since a couple of the songs on Heretic Pride” in an episode of the podcast I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats, and the tradition of the fast–paced and bubbly final melody is a continuation of “Transcendental Youth,” “Pigs That Ran Straightaway Into the Water, Triumph Of,” and “Alpha Rats Nest.”
This album is a celebration and culmination of everything the Mountain Goats have done, all the way from “No, I Can’t” to Goths. Although Darnielle and company have given no indication that this might be the end of the Goats, In League with Dragons would be a fitting end to the last 26 years of Mountain Goats history.