Secret Meeting score: 85
by Philip Moss
Concept albums have been debated for as long as they have existed. One man who favours the format is John Darnielle – the novelist, singer/songwriter and long time frontman of The Mountain Goats – who has just released his 17th record in all, and his third (ish) concept record in a row.
What began as a bunch of songs informed by Dungeons and Dragons, was soon watered down by producer, Owen Pallett – who selected the strongest songs from those sent over by Darnielle, rather than pander to the narrative. And the result is the strongest Mountain Goats record in years, and arguably their most instantly accessible ever.
In contrast to 2017’s synthetic sounding Goths, which Darnielle proudly professed contained ‘no guitars’, In League With Dragons is a luscious, organic sounding version of The Goats. Opener, Done Bleeding falls somewhere close to a scaled down Bruce Springsteen, with Darnielle’s voice ideally matched to the cinematic landscape that envelops it.
Lead single, Younger, shuffles through the aforementioned tabletop fantasy battlefield – ‘map out your co-ordinates… try not to lose sight of the mission’ – before descending into goofball jazz. Clemency for the Wizard King is a stripped back, shimmering piece of fantastic folk, and the title track slips into country mode with fluttering lap steels.
However, the pièce de résistance is Going Invisible 2 – a remarkable, spacious track that sees the backing band stripped away, and another strong Darnielle vocal performance pushed forward. Also, based upon the demo version of the track that’s available on You Tube, which Darnielle labels a ‘Tom Petty meets The Byrds pastiche’, much credit must go to Owen Pallett (Arcade Fire, Pet Shop Boys, Tomberlin). At no point does Pallett, who is known for his exuberant scores, overpower the band – and to his credit, the soundscapes provide the perfect space for Darnielle on the most melodic collection of songs in the band’s back catalogue.
17 albums in, Darnielle shows not even the slightest sign of losing focus or his ear for a wondrous tune – in fact, quite the opposite. And regardless of narrative, the concept here is simple: great tune after great tune. All Hail The Mountain Goats!