When given the task to write about one of your favorite bands, which The Mountain Goats are, at the point of their release of their best album in a number of years, which All Eternals Deck is, one can feel intimidated, to say the least. But, any fear can be relieved by listening to the words of the poet/singer/songwriter at the center of The Mountain Goats. “Who will rise and who will sink?/ who’s going to stand his ground and who’s going to blink?” John Darnielle sings on “High Hawk Season,” sounding like a melodic Hemingway in his preferred literary conundrum. And the refrain in the song, “Rise if you’re sleeping, stay awake/ We are young supernovas and the heat’s about to break,” is about as powerful as you will hear in rock music, particularly in the last verse where Darnielle jumps an octave and the a cappella backing vocals fade away to leave the singer’s snarl alone. Yes, we are but the people we become in the face of adversity, and for Darnielle — or at least the Darnielle whose character has been bringing us infectious and heartbreaking folk for nearly twenty years — that person has reached a new level of comfort that requires little more from his listeners than to sit back and witness the craft at its peak.
You would be hard-pressed to find a poor record in The Mountain Goats’ discography, but their last effort, 2009′s The Life Of The World To Come, was subtle and, dare I say, forgettable. Sure, the subject of the piece was noble (songs inspired from Bible verses), but with a few exceptions and especially a couple years in hindsight, the album seems to have found a permanent place on the shelf. This is not a fate that will become of All Eternals Deck, whose subject is not as explicit but whose basic songwriting pleasures burst from the speakers.
Sure, there is a darkness to the album. Referencing a fortune teller’s card deck, you can find the lyrical references to the title anywhere you look: the vampires of the opening song, the broken alter of “Estate Sale Sign,” Liza Minnelli — these are scary topics. But nothing is ever black and white in Darnielle’s music. The opening tale of “Damn These Vampires” can easily be seen as a revisit to the territory of crystal meth addiction covered in We Shall All Be Healed. “Estate Sign Sale” shows the desolation of a relationship through the filter of the macabre, reminding one of Tallahassee. Hell, even the titular reference in “Birth Of Serpents,” is for a pet hatchery rather than the immediate connotation that such a title suggests.
While a lot has been made over production choices in the creation of All Eternals Deck, namely working with Morbid Angel’s Erik Rutan, the only thing that can be said about the production is how wise the choices seem. As mentioned, the backing vocals on “High Hawk Season” are nothing short of perfect. Elsewhere, “Never Quite Free” combines piano, slide guitar, and slowly building drums to pop perfection, creating the first Mountain Goats song that seems destined for a cinematic ending. So the choice to not end there, and rather, go into the intense “Liza Forever Minnelli” may seem musically confusing. Lyrically, however, ending the album by laying down next the Hollywood star’s Hollywood star, in the place where he used to call home, seems cyclical and suiting. And, as comes to light often when discussing Darnielle, who am I to second-guess this master?
Because, after holding this record close for a month, “High Hawk Season” and “Estate Sign Sale,” both remain as two of the best songs to be released this year, and there is not a weak moment on the record; no skipper or downtime. As he says on “Prowl Great Cane,” “it’s hard to tell gifts of the spirit from clever counterfeits.” But not in this case. All Eternals Deck is as obvious in its quality as Darnielle is obvious in his earnestness. In an interview with The Washington Post, Darnielle says that he doesn’t look beyond the last record, the current one, and the next one in his musical thoughts. For a man who has such a prolific an output as Darnielle, this is not hard to understand, as the literally hundreds of songs could create quite the bar to jump. Luckily, as fans, we don’t have to do the same and All Eternals Deck can simply join the best of The Mountain Goats in our memory. Who knows how many he has left in him, but thankfully, he had this one.
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