One might think of John Darnielle as a more emotionally and musically forgiving counterpart to Mark E Smith: determinedly following his own prolific path, and if it’s him and your granny on bongos, it’s still the Mountain Goats. On his 21st official album he’s in the concept game again. Previous records have been inspired by role-playing games and an adolescence of listening to goth bands; now Bleed Out takes its lead from the bloody revenges exacted by the protagonists of action movies, set to indie rock that veers from folky to near metal in Wage Wars Get Rich Die Handsome.
It’s not a novelty record – Darnielle has said he is fascinated by the fact that revenge seems so appealing precisely because it’s unavailable to those who don’t live in action movies – but it’s shot through with pop-culture references, and images that are familiar to anyone who watches movies in which gun-toting men pursue their nemeses. Training Montage’s title is utterly on the nose: it describes the set-up everyone has seen a thousand times. Cliches are nailed throughout the album, down to men who “have loosely gathered / To stand in doorways / Making small talk / About the weather”, in Guys on Every Corner.
But for the power of revenge as a notion, it’s a limited emotional palette for a writer as gifted as Darnielle to work with. It feels more like a brilliantly conceived and executed exercise than something to return to. It’s an interesting question, though: can you get emotional depth from things created solely to thrill?