The idea for the songs on the Mountain Goats’ latest full-length album, Bleed Out, was originally described by the band’s primary member, John Darnielle, as a collection of “uptempo mini-action movies.” What ultimately resulted from Darnielle’s songwriting, which began in January 2021 and soon after culminated in a recording session produced by Alica Bognanno at Sylvan Esso’s Betty’s Studios in North Carolina, are twelve tracks that aren’t so much mini-action movies, but a dozen songs based on tropes, characters, imagery, and cliches common in action films from the last sixty years of cinema.
Bleed Out opens with “Training Montage”, and the idea immediately recalls the song “Montage” from the 2004 all-marionette feature Team America: World Police. But where that comedy’s song was a parodic interpolation of over-the-top 80s hits like “Eye of the Tiger” and “You’re the Best”, Darnielle and company instead deliver a mid-tempo indie rock moment built off an acoustic guitar. The only similarity between the Mountain Goats’ song and that of the puppet movie is Darnielle’s occasional drily humorous meta referencing with lines, like, “It feels like it takes forever, it’s maybe five minutes on screen.” Three songs into Bleed Out’s first side and we get the memorable “Wage Wars Get Rich Die Handsome”. This speedy, relatively short number is the record’s most realized in terms of being a self-contained mini-action movie. As drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Peter Hughes drive the song forward at a tempo not atypical of a pop punk anthem, Darnielle describes a character akin to Kowalski from Vanishing Point. The song’s title is shouted repeatedly at the chorus, laying the groundwork for a predictably crowd-engaging moment when performed live.
“Bones Don’t Rust” has a Tusk-era Fleetwood Mac vibe in terms of chord structure and makes the most of its two-and-a-half-minute running time. The song is followed by the upbeat and strangely jolly “First Blood” which recounts imagery related to what may be a Branch Davidan-like cult. The song namedrops Charles Bronson’s Paul Kersey character from the Death Wish films and real-life Tennessee sheriff Buford Pusser but, oddly, its title’s only relation to the film of the same name is the line, “John Rambo never went to Vietnam.” Two-thirds into Bleed Out, “Guys on Every Corner” enters with a somewhat jarringly funky saxophone that provides retro color and manages to be just subtle enough so as not to overstay its welcome. Bleed Out’s longest track, “Hostages”, delivers a beautiful and wistful lead guitar solo in the song’s first minute. The lyrics are sung from the perspective of a media personality’s love of a potentially bloody news story. “We may run out of bullets! We’re never gonna run out of hostages!” Darnielle shouts so loudly his voice shakes with intense emotion.
The album’s title track concludes Bleed Out, and it’s the record’s most gentle moment in terms of both tempo and execution. Over minimal drums, a lovingly played acoustic guitar, and tinkling piano, Darnielle sings poignant lines that imagine an action hero’s death, like, “I’m gonna head into the darkness, I’m gonna head into the light, I will surrender to the slow lurching tide, drift off into the night.”
Although Darnielle’s lyrics are dark, the song makes for an affecting ender, one that smartly rescues listeners from walking away with a feeling of hopelessness by winding down gently with a touch of gallows humor and an optimistic instrumental flourish. The Mountain Goats’ twenty-first studio album manages to draw comedy and heart from a movie genre largely bereft of both.