The Coronavirus pandemic and the lockdowns that ensued brought an unprecedented challenge to all of us, and with it, our own unique ways of dealing with that clawing sense of doom. But at a time when many artists gravitated toward a mode of self-expression that forefronted the claustrophobic, maddening loneliness of the whole experience (think Bo Burnham’s Inside), it would appear that John Darnielle turned his focus to heading in the opposite direction.
Bleed Out is a lockdown record by all accounts, though not necessarily in the way you might expect, least of all from the wry font of trauma and casual despair of The Mountain Goats. Darnielle spent the winter of 2020 watching and re-watching countless campy action movies made from the ’60s onwards, and it is these—and their lovingly predictable themes of blood, honor, and revenge—which course through Bleed Out like whiskey through the veins of a pulpy ’80s action star.
Each song picks up a well-worn trope from these kinds of films—the heroic last stand, the “I-will-find-you-and-I-will-kill-you” monologue, the hostage rescue—and spins it out into a fully-fledged soundscape flanked by soothing, jangly riffs and Darnielle’s sensitive vocals. It’s a cheery exercise in tongue-in-cheek escapism, made all the more enjoyable for the fact that it follows a career made big largely by singing about devastating personal tragedy. Hearing The Mountain Goats tackling something a little lighter is a lot of fun (insofar as violent men charging forth into a certain but noble death can be considered lighter, anyway).
The Mountain Goats’ general sound—all twinkling pianos and acoustic guitars (with the notable exception of 2017’s Goths)—is not what one might consider natural bedfellows with narratives concerning macho glory and vengeance through bloodshed. That’s part of the reason why the album works so well, and as tempting as it would be to offer a sly nod of acknowledgement to the audience, the Goats more or less resist doing so for the whole of the album’s duration.
A fiendish and beautiful juxtaposition defines much of Bleed Out; “Extraction Point,” for example, details a man’s triumphant escape from his thuggish past into a blissful future (“Dreams of the future up in the front of my mind / Leave a couple dozen bodies behind”), delivered with gentle horns and the gorgeous tinkling of a tambourine in the chorus. “Make You Suffer” could be a neat, feel-good summer tune, what with its pop sensibilities, its catchy hook and firm, head-bobbing riff—if only the hook wasn’t “I’m gonna make you suffer,” and the lyrical content wasn’t a dark promise of annihilation to whoever seems to have gotten very, very far into Darnielle’s bad side (“Say what you like / There won’t be anybody listening!”). “Hostages” is an ambient sliver of indie-rock that wouldn’t sound out of place in low-budget coming-of-age movie. Its masterfully calm instrumentation would make it easy to pop on in the background and just zone out of the lyrics, although you definitely shouldn’t.
The best thing about Bleed Out, though, is that whilst it would be easy to rest on the laurels of the humor evoked by the nice-music-nasty-lyrics formula (and the band’s skill is such that doing so would still leave us with a good album in its own right), the Mountain Goats—ever unable to resist a juicy narrative—take it above and beyond. The lyrical threads clearly indicates somebody who knows the genre inside and out, but it’s far more than a tawdry recounting of action tropes from a few campy films. Just as Tarantino and Nolan have their own personal storytelling motifs, so too does Darnielle, and Bleed Out tells us these stories of conflict, loss, crime, and punishment with that peculiar mix of gut-wrenching solemnity and cool detachment that only The Mountain Goats can pull off.
It’s this earnestness, this respect for the source material, that leads to a few genuine moments of heartfelt elation and misery throughout the album. True, it doesn’t get close to the emotional depths achieved by fan-favorites like The Sunset Tree, but nor is it actually trying to—and it’s still hard not to feel moved by songs like the album’s closing title track, where the protagonist nonchalantly accepts their mortality while graphically describing their own failing body. Action heroes are permitted the shedding of one single manly tear per movie, and The Mountain Goat’s Bleed Out ought to be just enough to get you to join them.