The Mountain Goats

All Eternals Deck

(Merge; 2011)

By Andrew Hall | 31 March 2011

Now in his third decade of recording, John Darnielle has proven himself to be the rare singer-songwriter who gets better as he gets older. Though some purists probably still insist that the Mountain Goats were ruined from the first notes of the hi-fi Tallahassee (2002), Darnielle’s singing and songwriting have broadened and diversified remarkably. Since finishing the boombox masterpiece All Hail West Texas (2002), he’s learned to use his indoor voice, collaborated with many talented musicians and producers to help him realize his visions in studio settings, and written some of the most consistently poignant and sympathetic portraits of life as one inevitably comes to know it. He does so often from the perspectives of characters far removed from what just about anyone lives through, and, for the most part, with conventional folk-rock instrumentation.

All Eternals Deck, the band’s first album for North Carolina superindie Merge, effectively picks up from where the apocalyptic finale of The Life of the World To Come (2009) left off. Except that Darnielle now focuses not on narratives of loss or what it means to be prepared to lose, as The Life had, but on what happens to the people who manage to live through them. To do so, he returns to familiar archetypes: victims of the supernatural, couples in decline, people trying to cope with their pasts, and, surprisingly, himself. It’s a record about what happens during and, more importantly, after trauma: what gets remembered and how one copes with those memories as they resurge.

For his victims, damage comes in many forms. In “Damn These Vampires,” it’s the transformation thrust upon his narrator, presented in terms of insatiable appetite and paralysis. It’s decay in “Estate Sale Sign,” where a lover tries “to see if secrets burn when you hold them up into the light” as he shouts at the former object of his affection. And it’s betrayal in “Prowl Great Cain,” where someone turns on what might’ve been a partner in crime and only finds comfort in the moments when he can’t remember that guilt and sickness possess his body. This all comes to a head on the stunningly-arranged “Outer Scorpion Squadron,” where Darnielle, presenting some of his most ornate piano playing yet, details the exact process by which one can summon these memories in the form of ghosts, then drowns them one by one, the closest he can come to a resolution.

Even moreso than his earlier songs, Darnielle’s new choruses read like mantras, as if his characters can do nothing but shout advice so as to stop anyone within earshot from getting crushed by what’s coming. Backed by one of the strangest-sounding choirs committed to record and in a moment unlike anything in the band’s history, he sings, “Rise if you’re sleeping, stay awake” in the Warriors-referencing “High Hawk Season.” “Beautiful Gas Mask” reduces in its chorus to simply “never sleep, remember to breathe deep,” and the almost triumphant “For Charles Bronson” sees him espouse how important it is to “pull back the hammer, try to hold the gun straight” in the crucial seconds when one’s seen. By doing this, Darnielle wrings urgency from the sparer moments, achieving tension where he once would’ve sounded contemplative, and the impact is almost immediate.

Also at work here is Darnielle’s obsession with the camera. Picking up in some sense from “Only Existing Footage” from the Extra Lens’ Undercard (2010)—a comparatively playful document of a week or two in the life of a film crew struggling to put anything at all together—cameras appear defective in “Liza Forever Minelli,” at the center of “For Charles Bronson,” and throughout “Birth of Serpents.” In the latter Darnielle lets them watch his own life story, referencing places he’s lived, crises, and the camera’s ultimate importance as a means by which to “remember all your darker moments by,” as if repression guaranteed that the human brain could be an unreliable witness at best.

However, like The Sunset Tree (2005) before it, the album is also a triumph of production and arranging. New collaborator Erik Rutan (known best for his work in Morbid Angel and as frontman of Hate Eternal), who oversaw sessions for four of these songs, and arranger Yuval Semo (alongside now-established producers Brandon Eggleston, John Congleton and long-term collaborator Scott Solter) help to make this one of the most detailed and texturally engaging collections of Mountain Goats material. The aforementioned choir on “High Hawk Season” and the strings moving throughout “Outer Scorpion Squadron” and “Age of Kings” add huge depth, as do unexpected moments like the sudden emergence of pedal steel on “Never Quite Free,” a song as much an affirmation as it is an acknowledgement of one’s mortality, conflicted in its triumph. Rutan’s treatment of “Estate Sale Sign” sounds propulsive and aggressive like nothing Darnielle has ever done before, a progression from The Life‘s speed metal homage within “Psalms 40:2.” Jon Wurster’s relatively restrained percussion also gets a lush treatment, with drum hits given huge amounts of space in the mix to resonate, and, though the album sometimes shies away from low end, Peter Hughes remains present and utterly complementary through his bass lines. The finished product, despite its potentially scattered origins, comes across with a remarkable sense of cohesion.

At this point in his career, Darnielle has nothing left to prove. Though his voice and acoustic guitar playing (both of which have become more nuanced) remain the focal point of almost every Mountain Goats song, and by his own admission of sorts he uses the “same four chords” to express many ideas, he’s demonstrated a remarkable openness to sonic experimentation and an ear for sympathetic collaborators. Combined with his tendency to shake personnel up every several years, he virtually guarantees that no two records he makes in a studio setting sound all that similar. All Eternals Deck is further evidence that his approach is still working, and one that produces strikingly different, surprisingly, and ultimately stunning results from every equation.