The Mountain Goats inspire intense reactions—usually positive ones, but even the most rabid of fans might qualify their fandom. Starting with 2002’s Tallahassee, the Mountain Goats transitioned from lo-fi, homemade recordings featuring only singer-songwriter John Darnielle to professional studio recordings with a full band. This drastic alteration in style—previously the Mountain Goats had even been known to record on a boom box—inspired the aforementioned split in the fan base. Since 2002 the band—still only Darnielle, really, but featuring a rotating lineup of other musicians—has produced seven albums, the latest of which is called All Eternals Deck and which was our most-played album here at KSPC last week. It’s their most obviously produced yet, and sounds increasingly like straight-up indie rock a la the Hold Steady, with more focus on the instrumental musicians that decreases the customary spotlight on Darnielle. Otherwise, All Eternals Deck sounds, well, like a Mountain Goats release. This means that you can expect a lot of acoustic guitar, one or two surprisingly jagged-edged tunes mixed in among the wistful melancholy, and plenty of spiky, literate lyrics that unfurl their poetic meaning gradually, rewarding repeated listens.
The album opens with “Damn These Vampires”, a darkly fantastical jam that has Darnielle ranting in the chorus: “Crawl til dawn / On my hands and knees / God damn these vampires / For what they’ve done to me”. As in a handful of other songs on the album, Darnielle’s songwriting skill doesn’t appear at its finest in “Damn These Vampires”, and his characteristically candid and distinctive vocals sound downright strained on the out-of-his-range high notes in second track “Birth of Serpents”. Nonetheless, “Damn These Vampires” is pretty fun, and “Birth of Serpents” features this fantastic bit of lyricism: “See that young man who dwells in his body like an uninvited guest?”
After ramping up the tempo in the jagged, frantic “Estate Sale Sign”, the mood lapses into characteristic Mountain Goats melancholia for the poignant, sighing “Age of Kings”. Backed by moody strings, Darnielle sings of love won and then painfully lost: “Felt your name burn in like a tattoo into my skin / Rain on the clay tiles all night / Your head nestled beneath my chin”. Again, maybe rhyming “skin” and “chin” isn’t particularly ground-breaking, but in moments like these, the agony in Darnielle’s worn-sounding voice appeals straight to the lovelorn loser in all of us.
Album center “High Hawk Season” marks the riskiest departure from the Goats’ usual formula, finding Darnielle and his guitar backed by the North Mountain Singers, three men wielding grave harmonies straight out of the 1930s. Their solemn drama provides a surprisingly apt backdrop for Darnielle’s stylings, and the placement of the track, breaking up a fairly forgettable string of songs in the middle of the album, makes it a memorable album highlight.
As with most Mountain Goats albums, the lyrics here are mostly concerned with depressing topics, from the decline and death of an old man in “Sourdoire Valley Song” to the aforementioned love lost. Nonetheless, the mood isn’t overwrought, though it steps into dangerous territory in the violin-scored, murky “Outer Scorpion Squadron”.
The final three tracks of the album are among its finest, starting with the determined ode “For Charles Bronson”: “Set your sights on good fortune, concentrate / Pull back the hammer, try to hold the gun straight,” sings Darnielle. He follows up with “Never Quite Free”, which finds him probably at his most improbably hopeful. Personally, I love Darnielle when he’s angry, but “Never Quite Free” might provide a welcome respite for listeners who tire of bitterness. Finally, the album closes with “Liza Forever Minnelli”, balancing a typical sly dissonance between an upbeat-sounding melody and acerbic lyrics. Now, who among us hasn’t thought: “Anyone here mentions ‘Hotel California’ dies before the first line clears his lips”?
All Eternals Deck might feature the kind of high-production value that will further alienate hardcore 1990s-Mountain-Goats fans, but if you’re here for Darnielle’s lyrics and don’t mind a few extra instruments, there’s plenty to like about the album. To leave with you with some empowering poetic goodness from “High Hawk Season”:
Rise if you’re sleeping, stay awake/ We are young supernovas and the heat’s about to break
Review by Julia Ringo