Another day, another Pitchfork review of a band with an intriguing name that I’ve never heard of, and yet another example of the immense importance of music critics. Yesterday was possibly the most pivotal moment in a band called Goat Girl’s career: the Pitchfork review of their debut record. They will forever be judged on this review. Quotes from this review will be used in Goat Girl articles forevermore. After this review, the Goats will forever be known as either a “Fork Approved” or “Fork Unapproved” group, and with the NME’s reduced power these days not even the hyperbolic UK music press could save them if they got less than a 6.6.
We’re not sure how The Fork divies up their reviews (“Ok these guys are getting a little too sure of themselves. Let’s get Cohen in on this one, shall we?”) but the Girls Of The Goat drew Eve Barlow of Mura Masa review fame. This seems like a natural fit and bodes well for The Goats who happen to be one of those bands from London who use The Smoke’s complicated geography and micro-cultures to map their whole vibe. Barlow has been carving out a nice little niche at the Fork reviewing emerging UK bands and seems to have a great ear for the regional nuances and stylistic intricacies that define them.
The high hopes appear to be justified with the opening blurb, where Barlow manages to establish some key bits of information (Goat Girl is from South London and this is their debut record) as well as the band’s entire aesthetic (“absurd, playful, and more than a little unsettling”) in just one three-comma sentence. A remarkable accomplishment right out of the gate, Barlow lays out an intriguing portrait here that already has me sold on giving this record a spin. Playful and unsettling? A rare and intriguing combination right there. Many bands are one of these, but very few are both. Barlow also manages to slip in a Libertines reference, fully revealing the critic as either a native of The Good Ship Albion or a hardcore Anglophile since nobody outside of these two groups would use messieurs Doherty and Barat as reference points these days. But it’s a comparison that tantalizes indeed, this less romantic version of Pete and Carl, since if you strip The Libs of their saucer-eyed reverence for ye olde London Town you’re left with the bible-black Babyshambles gutter aesthetic. And in 2005 many of us preferred the junkie Shambles to the trilbies and Hancock set.
To kick off a review by tying a band to Brexit, especially a band that doesn’t specifically comment on the situation (the review doesn’t state if The Goat Gals take on The Brex specifically), is a risky move. Is a critic about to use these precious, high-profile blog inches to espouse on their political beliefs at the expense of the record and band in question? Barlow does manage to slip in that Britain’s exit from the EU was “dreadful” but immediately ties the momentous event right back to the band, pointing out that the Goat Girls inked their Rough Trade deal on the day that it happened. This is a significant point whether the Girls sing about the politics of the situation or not, and throughout the review Barlow paints the lyrics as representative of a bleak, washed-out post-Brex haze that has taken over London’s grey scotch mist of old. The Libertines these are not.
Barlow also deserves kudos for being immediately skeptical of the UK music press super-hype machine (who could forget when the Libertines themselves were on the cover of the NME after only releasing one song?). The critic wisely shrugs off the hyperbole with just a brief mention, then gets right down to the matters at hand: the music, the band, the lyrics, the aesthetics. An intriguing backdrop is painted toward the end of the first paragraph:
“Goat Girl, whose members are now in their early 20s, are navigating post-adolescence in a time of queasy division between the young and old, Brexit’s impact remains a cataclysmically uncertain mess; London, which once boasted a thriving indie subculture, has lost much of its creative edge to greed and gentrification. In this crazy, aimless time, they’ve built something distinctly new and surreal.”
Just like bands emerging from modern-day NYC, Goat Girl must brave a shiny, fully gentrified realm of six-dollar matcha lattes and glass-and-steel condo fronts. We’re a long way from The Libertine’s beloved Albion Rooms here, lads, and Barlow has managed to use modern politics and the last generation’s indie culture to paint a vivid picture of the world Goat Girl can’t help but inhabit. The fact that they use this landmine-filled nightmare-scape to come up with music that is “distinctly new and surreal” is one of the best compliments a band could ever have bestowed on them, to take a bad situation and mold from it a compelling netherworld, and Barlow has justified this greatest of all compliments in just a few deft sentences.
So what of the music? Barlow gets down to the dirty business at hand in the second sentence of the second paragraph, offsetting the recent Pitchfork trend of briefly mentioning the music in the last paragraph after espousing on god knows what for 800 words or more. We find out that the record is a hefty 19 tracks, which would sound daunting (What is this? Prog?) if Barlow didn’t let us know that the record feels “light and accessible, with plenty of offbeat wit and many an unexpected twist down gothic country roads.” Now that we’re back on board, Barlow gets right down to the pull quote-worthy descriptor that will no doubt haunt the Goat Girls until their dying days: “Like reading a book of André Breton poems while drunk on cheap cider.” This also accomplishes the tricky critical maneuver of drawing a distinctive line in the sand for readers without explicitly stating that they are doing so. This is the point where we will either continue reading while simultaneously putting Goat Girl on our Spotify “to listen” lists, while others will fuck right off down the road of indifference. I, for one, am interested in drunken Breton recitals and will indeed be reading further.
Barlow keeps the intriguing descriptors dropping like carpet bombs over the next paragraph. We find out that the band seems “keen on making sure they’re not taken too seriously” but also that they “deal with sincere subjects” and sing of them with a “sad ennui.” I’m already pretty sure that Goat Girl doesn’t sound anything like Serge Gainsbourg, but any young band taking on the Great Man’s main aesthetics in these times of stifling woke sincerity deserves many medals. “It’s a dark humor befitting of a society that often seems to have lost the plot,” she lets us know, sketching an evocative portrait of a band riding the chipper insincerity of youth right into a future as bleak as a council estate high-rise looming in the fog over an unattractive, post-industrial gaggle of streets.
It’s interesting to hear that “exhaustion” is detectable in the lead singer’s voice. Still in her early 20s, she sounds like “Lou Reed on a comedown, pissed-off but without the energy to shout.” Considering we are dealing with a very young band here who signed with one of the most powerful record companies in the world when still in their teens, this makes older readers feel real sorry for the Goat Girls who should by all means be out at the pubs and clubs developing minor drug habits in celebration. Those of us who can recall the early aughts know that this is exactly what the gents in The Libertines did when they signed with RT, and Barlow wisely brings it all back around to The Boys In The Band late in the review, noting the “fantastical, post-Libertines quality” of many of the tracks. Unlike the Likely Lads, however, the Goat Girls “aren’t interested in glorifying anything” or likely to make any young folks long for the streets of Dalston. In many ways Barlow is portraying Goat Girl as the dirty, scowling Stones to the pre-smack-and-crack Libertines’ bright-eyed, dreamy Beatles. This is just the type of stretch that could doom any critical piece lacking the depth and insight to back it up, but Barlow has provided enough of both to sell it well.
I was relieved to find out that there are plenty of pretty, serene elements to be found amongst all the glacial-paced apocalyptic dread, and Barlow was wise to point them out before she wrapped up the review. I was amazed to hear that a song called “Lay Down” contains a “dreamy whiff of Led Zeppelin’s ‘Stairway To Heaven’” and will most likely be spinning that track first. If the most fundamental duty of the music critic is to artfully detail all of the essential elements of a record so that readers can make an educated choice to listen or not, then details like this are incredibly important. A lot of critics would have left out the dreamy “Stairway” comparison since it clashes with the main talking points espoused over the course of the review, but Barlow understands that artists are complicated and often contain clashing angles. With just this one mention, she may have just gained Goat Girl dozens of listeners that they would never have had with a lesser reviewer at the boards.
A good number of modern-day reviewers would have wasted at least one paragraph on bashing the UK music press hype machine that has pushed many an unworthy band to the temporary forefront on no better strength than a good shag cut or a cool jacket, then several paragraphs more on Brexit-era doomsday posturing. Barlow takes these twin elephants and expertly weaves them into the core fabric of the band’s music and worldview, never losing sight of either along the way.
In the most high-profile review of her career thus far, Eve Barlow deftly dodges many potential pitfalls to paint a truly evocative portrait of what sounds like a unique and notable young band.