Yes, The Mountain Goats have finally reached lucky album number 13 in their discography. John Darnielle started the project in 1991, making this the 20th anniversary of the band, so by all counts with the numbers at play this could either be a very good thing or a very bad one. The album is titled “All Eternals Deck”, and it marks a couple of interesting changes for the band. Now on their third record as an official three-piece, The Mountain Goats have jumped record labels from 4AD to Merge, and peppered their studio sessions with a wide variety of producers. Darnielle has long admitted to an extreme love of death metal, and it was announced that uber-metal producer Erik Rutan, also of the bands Morbid Angel and Hate Eternal, would be behind the boards for a handful of tracks. That handful amounted to four of the (again) lucky 13 songs on the album, and if you were expecting heavy electric guitars and some gutteral screaming as a total change of pace for the band, it would have been interesting had they actually gone that direction. Apparently Darnielle hasn’t yet perfected the metal vocals. As much as a change of pace and style might have been nice, there are those satisfied with the way things currently are, with Darnielle and his cohorts Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster making intriguing and introspective folk rock. So guess what? “All Eternals Deck” is more of that.
If you’ve ever seen the movies “Near Dark” or “From Dusk Til Dawn”, you’ll recognize the plot of “All Eternals Deck”‘s opening cut “Damn These Vampires”. The main character is saddling up in the Old West, where apparently vampires have run amok and he’s been cursed with their “gift” of immortality, having been bitten. Audibly speaking, the song rolls along much like the dusty open plains, complete with somber piano, sedate acoustic guitars and just the light twittering of drums. The track is also a good microcosm of the record itself, though nothing else quite sticks in the realm of “Twilight” fan fiction. The focus is typically dark though, much like the pitch black album cover, and there are supernatural/spiritual elements at work for much of it. After the last Mountain Goats record “The Life of the World to Come” was Biblically strident and wholly conceptual, “All Eternals Deck” is a welcome respite from those constraints even as Darnielle continues to make references to religion. “Prowl Great Cain” is something of an ode to the first ever murderer in the Bible, attempting to dive into his mindset after being marked by God for murdering his brother. “Sometimes a great wave of forgetfulness rises up and blesses me/and other times the sickness howls and I despair of any remedy/And I feel guilty that I can’t feel ashamed,” Darnielle sings amid a dual guitar, high energy melody that defies the subject matter.
When not writing songs about murderers in the Bible, “For Charles Bronson” takes on the Hollywood legend and perennial badass star of classics such as the “Death Wish” series and “The Dirty Dozen”. The guy was known for “killing” people on camera, though the song itself tries to grasp how he handled his personal life. “Hit the gym each night/stay cool and seldom speak/keep the heart of a champion/let them never see you’re weak”, sounds about right for a guy that was so often confused with the characters he played that the actual lines between fantasy and reality were often blurred. There is a fascination with celebrity that permeates “All Eternals Deck” as well, from Judy Garland getting abused by a movie studio on “The Autopsy Garland” to slyly referencing the cult classic “The Warriors” on “High Hawk Season” to the totally obvious closing song “Liza Forever Minnelli”. What’s interesting is that even if those with “high artistic pursuits” are right in suggesting that pop culture’s obsession with celebrity is one of society’s biggest problems, Darnielle’s white hot wordplay turns that trash into gold. These aren’t songs about sex tape scandals or rampant drug use, but rather the perils of fame and the constant reminder that beyond the silver screen are real people with the same built in feelings that we all have.
Elsewhere on the album, Darnielle covers that age old topic of relationships, both romantic and non-romantic. “Sourdoire Valley Song” takes almost the opposite view of the fame concept by soliciting empathy for those with the belief they will have no impact on the world. If there’s one song that comes closest to actually “going metal” on the album, “Estate Sale Sign” provides the energy and the acid tongue. Replace the vigorously strummed acoustic guitars with electrics and you’ll have a loud and brash punk rock song. Darnielle also gives a tour-de-force vocal to match the heartbroken lyrics. The song is about how we divide things up after a relationship ends, along with the extreme bitterness we can have towards our exes. Beyond those many topics buried throughout this record, there are a couple of small moments that are cause to pay attention at a more instrumental level. “Age of Kings” makes for a pretty gorgeous song with the slow and deliberately subdued violins. Meanwhile “Outer Scorpion Squadron” winds up being the most complex track on the entire record, with a full orchestra sweeping in for an interesting change of pace. Other than those couple standouts, everything else is a combination of acoustic and light electric guitar, piano, and just enough drums to give you an idea of the beat.
After so many records, The Mountain Goats have become a band less about forward momentum and innovation and more about consistency. John Darnielle and the boys have taken the band to the place it needs to go and stay without really a dip in quality. The lyrics are the key, and Darnielle holds fast in his ability to very actively engage the listener with stories and emotional moments. The variety of topics addressed on “All Eternals Deck” is refreshing compared to the religious themes of “The Life of the World to Come” and “Heretic Pride” (to a degree). Prior to that you had the relationship-destroyed “Get Lonely”, which was an emotionally bare Darnielle solo record, so basically it’s been a few years since The Mountain Goats have released a non-concept album. That was just what the doctor ordered apparently, along with the support of multiple producers – even one that has a long-standing heavy metal background. And as dark as it goes, there are plenty of lighter, more carefree moments to try and balance that out, which is kind of nice. This may very well be the best Mountain Goats record since “The Sunset Tree”, and that’s saying something. In this particular case, it most certainly seems that 13 really is their lucky number.