Maybe you are just like John Darnielle: In the depths of the pandemic winter at the end of 2020, the Mountain Goats frontman passed the time trapped at home in North Carolina watching pulpy action movies, finding comfort in familiar tropes and sofabound escapism. But you are not really like John Darnielle, unless the action movies you found comfort in included French thrillers like 2008’s Mesrine, vintage Italian poliziotteschi, or the 1974 Donald Pleasence mad-scientist vehicle The Freakmaker. Or unless watching them brought you back to your formative days as an artist, when watching films fueled and soundtracked your songwriting jags and bare-bones home recordings and in turn inspired your 20th album to be a song cycle about the allure—and futility—of vengeance. But there’s no shame in not being like John Darnielle; few people are.
“On earlier tapes you’ll find these sound samples,” Darnielle says. “‘Oh, where’s this sample from?’ It’s from whatever movie I was watching while I was sitting around on the couch with a guitar. I watch a movie, somebody’d say something that I like the sound of and I’ll write that phrase down. And then I would pause the VHS, write the song, record the song on a boombox, and go back to watching my movie. I got into doing that again; I just kept watching action movies and taking notes on what they’re about and on what the governing plots and tropes and styles are. It was very much like an immersion method acting technique.”
The resulting performance is Bleed Out, a cinematic experience unto itself. One song about preparing to exact bloody revenge begat another song about the act of exacting bloody revenge and then more songs about and the causes and the aftermath of being driven to exact bloody revenge, each delivered with the urgency and desperation deserving of their narrators and circumstances.
Just as Getting Into Knives and Dark in Here—recorded in Memphis and Muscle Shoals, respectively, in the first two weeks of March 2020, just before such a thing would become impossible—were heavily informed and influenced by their historic settings, Bleed Out is all pent-up energy and explosion, executed by a bunch of friends who were mainly happy to be in a room together making loud noises. In January 2021, just weeks after Darnielle had started writing, his bandmates Peter Hughes, Matt Douglas, and Jon Wurster joined him at a studio in the woods near his home in Chapel Hill. Everything was finished inside a week.
“We often make a record and then bring in some guests who flesh out the textures,” Darnielle says. “And for this one, it was very much like a pack mentality. That sort of seemed to proceed from the songs.” One new face was that of Bully’s Alicia Bognanno, recommended to Darnielle by his manager as a producer who could help nurture the rougher-edged sound these songs requested. “We met up and hit it off. She’s a great guitarist. It was kind of just a lark, to see what would happen, and it was totally great.”
That abandon is on full display from the opening track, “Training Montage,” which lovingly documents the getting-ready-for-battle scene in any action movie regardless of provenance and loudly declares its intentions: “I’m doing this for revenge.” This and the next song, “Mark on You,” were the first two Darnielle wrote, and they set the tone for everything that follows on Bleed Out.
Running narrative themes are not new to Mountain Goats projects, especially in recent years, be it the pro wrestlers of 2015’s Beat the Champ or the goths of 2017’s Goths. Darnielle was drawn to the antiheroes of the hard-boiled action flicks he was bingeing, particularly the ways in which their quests for justice were almost all inevitably doomed.
“In these movies and elsewhere, it’s such a dearly held trope, when in fact, I don’t think anybody really exacts much revenge in this life at all,” he says. “Because we all know that revenge is bullshit, right? The Greeks knew this. It’s never a zero-sum game. And yet the idea is so delicious, you can’t get enough of it. It’s more of a grail—because you can’t have it, it starts to seem really appealing. That’s why you want to get revenge, because you know you’re never going to get revenge.”
Bleed Out could be all one movie, from the opening training montage to the demise in the elegiac closing title track. Songs like “Make You Suffer,” “First Blood,” “Hostages,” and “Need More Bandages” do what they say on the tin, telling typically vivid, deliberately recognizable vignettes of desperate characters in no-win situations who plan on taking as many people down with them as they have to. But Darnielle sees these as unconnected stories that feel universal in their desire for justice, if not in their wanton bloodshed. Anthems don’t get more straightforward or anthem-y than “Wage Wars Get Rich Die Handsome,” tapping into an anger that’s easy to reach in 2022, even if the solutions aren’t.
Few people think as much, or as well, about violence and its portrayal as John Darnielle. His recent bestselling novel Devil House (his third) is all about the relationship between tragedy and entertainment, though he is careful to downplay any parallels to Bleed Out beyond a natural attraction to terrible things as a coping mechanism.
“That’s what catharsis is,” he says. “When you are able to experience something that is frightening to you but you don’t have to be harmed by it—that experience is really valuable. I think we’re reflecting on the nature of what we consume and of what it says about us.”