Bleed Out

Bleed Out

Like so much art created in the depths of isolation in the pre-vaccine pandemic era, The Mountain Goats’ 20th studio album fantasizes about escapism. In between writing best-selling novels, John Darnielle passed his time at home in North Carolina watching vintage thrillers, which inspired a songwriting jag that reminded him of his early days cranking out stream-of-consciousness home recordings. “I immediately started going, ‘Oh, he's getting ready for a big fight,’ and I get very excited about that,” Darnielle tells Apple Music. “I just kept taking notes on what the governing plots and tropes and styles are. I got really interested in that, about the weight of those things. This was very much going back into the strike-while-the-iron's-hot mindset, which produces different sorts of songs.” These familiar—even comforting, despite their brutal context—tropes of vengeance and hopelessness provided a unifying theme for the songs, recorded in January 2021 and produced by Bully’s Alicia Bognanno. While The Mountain Goats’ two prior LPs, Getting Into Knives and Dark in Here—both recorded just under the wire before lockdown in March 2020, in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, respectively—were steeped in the classic blues and soul of their birthplaces, Bleed Out is loud and brash in ways that fit the songs’ desperate characters and wanton violence, as well as their creators’ own pent-up aggression. “I’m always leery of the word ‘catharsis,’” Darnielle says. “I think it's more of a grail—because you can't have it, it starts to seem really appealing. And the bloodshed, that's kind of universal in Mountain Goats. Just something I like.” Here Darnielle unpacks the album, scene by gory scene. “Training Montage” “The Van Damme movies, all the kung fu movies have a training montage, most of the Rocky movies have a training montage. It's a myth about subjecting yourself to a period of austerity and discipline for some reawakening. I think it predates the action movie, this idea that you're going to retreat for a winter of hard times and emerge in spring as a beautiful, powerful flower, a season in isolation to refocus oneself on some goal—maybe a noble goal, maybe not. And also, to start it with just acoustic guitar and voice, it sounds like a very early Mountain Goats record until the drum hits.” “Mark on You” “‘Mark on You’ is a specific story about somebody who's going after someone. Either this or 'Training Montage' was probably the first song I wrote for this, and I was like, 'Oh man, this feels like a vein.' Revenge is something you can ardently want and you never have to be satisfied by what you get because you're not going to get it.” “Wage Wars Get Rich Die Handsome” “When you are writing about a desire to make everybody pay for something that's causing you pain, you're writing about something universal anyway. But especially if everybody's under a lot of pressure, then everybody's feeling that. The band was super into that one.” “Extraction Point” “To me, in some ways it's a tribute to a band called Silkworm. Their songs are all very cinematic. They're often voiced by a narrator, but who seems to be situated within a specific context. That's basically what I have always done, but mine usually exists more in a folk context, whereas this is much more of a rock song. What I really like about it is there's something that just finished happening and you have to put together the details of what it was. And it looks like it was pretty gnarly, but the song is pretty, it's triumphant. I wasn't sitting there trying to write a Silkworm pastiche, but I do think it comes out showing some clear signs of its pedigree. Silkworm is one of the best bands who ever existed.” “Bones Don’t Rust” “‘Bones Don't Rust' is sort of a pretty classic spy/action-movie story. And that one, speaking of influences, I feel it's a Stan Ridgway sort of tune in a lot of ways. He's another guy who does a narrator who's telling you a story from inside his world and you have to put the world and the story together from the clues he's dropping. He also plays a lot with genre, especially with spaghetti western stuff and noir tropes; I think this one has a little of both of those. The speaker is somebody who's been in the business of maybe being an assassin, maybe just a guy who breaks people's knees. The guy who comes in and does the dirty work and is now a little on the older side but knows he will be doing this until he drops.” “First Blood” “I watched First Blood Part II in Portland, Oregon, in the '80s. And to tell you the god's honest truth, I bought a tab of acid off somebody and ate it and went in the movie theater, but it turned out to be bunk. I just sat there waiting for it to come on and nothing happened. This song is extremely meta about the nature of action movies. And especially with action movies in the '70s, there's so many of these—Walking Tall and Death Wish—like, 'Well, sometimes you got to take the law in your own hands.' John Rambo, if a guy is going over to Vietnam to be a one-man army freeing a bunch of brothers, that's not how it's going to work out. They're bloody-minded fantasies. It makes the point that this sort of thinking is latent for a lot of people and eventually, those people get jobs on benches in courtrooms and stuff.” “Make You Suffer” “I’m fond of ‘Make You Suffer’ because it's sort of pretty. There's a lot of songs whose message is the message of 'Make You Suffer,' but 'Make You Suffer' just goes ahead and says it outright. It's got a lovely little midtempo shuffle to it, it's got a nice melodic hook, and I think it's one of the meaner songs I've ever written. You know how the Zodiac Killer sent these greeting cards to the cops and you'd open it up and it would be this really threatening thing about how many schoolchildren he was going to shoot on a bus? There's something of a Mountain Goats song in there, like: 'Oh, this looks like a friendly thing, until I open it.'” “Guys on Every Corner” “That is a stakeout song that comes from a lot of these action movies, especially Italian ones, but also plenty of American ones—mafia or various mafia-adjacent things. I like the element of sort of a private militia that is lurking everywhere.” “Hostages” “That's my other favorite one after 'Extraction Point.' I like the ones that explore something and stick with the mood for a long time and see where it goes. Both are kind of like Grateful Dead jams—they're extensive. And I have to say, I think that's one of my best choruses ever. Because it leans in—if you're going to have a hostage drama, it should be extreme. I once heard it in some action movie or another where a guy says, 'Only an idiot takes hostages,' because there's no good way out of a hostage situation. It's one of the more explicitly cinematic songs that's not actually taken from a particular movie.” “Need More Bandages” “That's one of the weirdest songs I've written since the tape days, in terms of the music. The chord progression is a little more angular than I usually go. I'm so tethered to melodic development chord progressions, and this has a lot of half steps in it and stuff that I find pretty interesting, and rhythmically it's like that, too. It's kind of got sort of a post-punk feel to it that I like.” “Incandescent Ruins” “This one's kind of cheating, because it's more of a science-fiction film than an action film. It's not from any particular movie, but it sounds sort of like a Westworld sort of theme, some sort of post-robot-overlord future in which there are mazes to escape from and stuff. The one style of songwriting I do pretty good is to sketch this entire imaginary world just through its details. It's one of my sort of really obscure skill sets.” “Bleed Out” “I wrote it on Sunday morning. I remember I was deep in the writing zone at that point, and what that means for my family is that dad is going to check out sometimes and then you don't really actually have a dad in the house for the next three to five hours. I wrote all these verses and was sending them one at a time to Peter [Hughes, bassist] going, 'Well, you got to hear what I got working here. This is pretty fun.' At that point we'd been together for a solid week, and that's a part of the studio experience that is hard to explain to the outside world. There's always a great deal of emotion, because you've been doing this thing where you're sharing some part of your creativity with these people every single day, but it's a profound communal sharing. Once we landed on that groove, we played it for a good half an hour, 40 minutes before we started recording. It's like Get Lonely—the band name and the title make sense. The Mountain Goats bleed out.”

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