The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck
Record Label: Merge Records
Release Date: March 29, 2011
There are few things in this world as beautiful as John Darnielle's lyrics. I'm constantly floored by his ability to describe the most mundane and human experiences as if they were epic legends lost to the decay of time. Whether it be bits of his life story, tales of metal enthusiasts commanded to recant their depraved pastime, or a husband and wife forced to come to grips with their lost love, he paints each and every line with a subtle glamor that makes even the most bleak experiences seem noteworthy. No songwriter is able to evoke imagery and bring forth emotion quite like Darnielle, and he's lost very little of his charm even after 20 years of recording.
While many of his earlier releases were all recorded via boombox, Darnielle bucked that trend in 2002 when he signed to the prolific indie label 4AD Records. From Tallahassee onward, all of his albums have been in-studio affairs with a full band, providing a much cleaner sound when compared to the tape deck recordings. Luckily, very little was lost in translation.
Not counting the numerous EPs, split albums, and compilations, All Eternals Deck is Darnielle's nineteenth full-length release. The change in sound quality has yet to diminish the impact Darnielle's lyrics themselves can make, and the familiar mix of occult imagery and melodrama is just as prevalent throughout his latest release. Each and every song is a living, breathing entity, separate in their own way even as they meld into a single cohesive collection. Know that it's only for brevity's sake that I whittle down the list to my favorites, because All Eternals Deck contains only a few miniscule missteps within its thirteen tracks.
Album opener “Damn These Vampires” begins innocently enough, as a piano intro eventually grows with the addition of soft percussion and acoustic guitar. The lyrics are bit heavier than the backing band would lead you to believe, using the well-known symptoms of vampiric infection to describe how the pressing weight of the world sometimes feels too heavy to bear. “Damn These Vampires” is a picture perfect view of what the modern incarnation of The Mountain Goats' brings to the table: a combination of somber melodies and novel lyricism that tell a story while also remaining open to creative interpretation.
Darnielle is not just a one-trick musician. Far from it, in fact. For every soft-spoken moment there is a raucous counterpart, producing a unique aura that only a lone man and his acoustic guitar can replicate. The conversion of this energy and emotion from the lo-fi recordings was possibly the hardest thing for Darnielle, but he mastered it gracefully and with few hiccups. “Estate Sale Sign” is a banging anthem of catharsis, combining the innocuous imagery of a garage sale with that of missionaries in some far off jungle looking to become martyrs. Darnielle's discordant guitar chords are prevalent, combining with his howling vocals to create one of the album's many highlights. “Prowl Great Cain” carries much of the same sound, albeit a bit more reserved. The lyrics draw parallels between feelings of guilt and Cain who, if the Bible is to be believed, was the world's first murderer. Much like “Estate Sale Sign,” this track deals with the purging of negative emotions, and the narrator describes themselves as feeling guilty, but no longer ashamed.
In direct contrast to these two tracks come “Age of Kings” and “Outer Scorpion Squadron.” The former is probably the most reserved track on the entire album, as Darnielle barely raises his voice above a whisper through the verses and chorus. Simplistic percussion and the usual acoustic guitar are accompanied by an atmospheric string section that supports the song and provides the most substance. The latter features much of the same instrumentation, but with an added focus on a soft piano melody. Light on lyrics but heavy on emotion, Darnielle hints at his efforts to try and bury memories of his childhood, literally drowning the ghosts of his past in order to be free of their influence. “Outer Scorpion Squadron” and, to a lesser extent, “Age of Kings” are perfect examples of less being more, and definitely stand out, even among the numerous hits All Eternals Deck contains.
But, my favorite track remains from my very first listen. “High Hawk Season” is an incredibly stripped down piece of music, featuring a combination of Darnielle's fluctuating vocals, an echoing male chorus, and an acoustic guitar. Small-town nostalgia fills the lyrics with emotion, and also brings forth images of a more innocent time with the very barbershop quartet influenced backing vocals. Up until the final chorus, Darnielle remains reserved in his delivery of heartfelt lyrics, making those last few lines stick memorably in the back of the listener's mind. All of these components add up to a very fulfilling, very complete song that mixes the best of Darnielle's old and new tendencies in an impressive way.
No matter how well I describe All Eternals Deck, nothing can compare to listening to it for yourself. Firsthand experience of a Mountain Goats' album is something that can't be replicated, because they lyrics speak to each person in their own special way. It's odd, but it's the best way to describe this fable Darnielle and his music have become. He's a living legend, and this album continues and adds onto that legacy with every single track that resides within. All Eternals Deck has something for everyone to enjoy, so don't waste time getting your hands on this one.