It seems like a quibble to say that the songs on The Mountain Goats new release, All Eternals Deck, are great, but they dont fit together. But if youve heard the mastery that is The Sunset Tree, its hard to not want that total package every time.
It should be noted that even if John Darnielle were in paint-by-numbers mode, it would still be great:. His basic palette is an incredible mix of cultural and academic references, pop psychology and emotive sentiments crammed in to mature, guitar-based indie-pop stories. Hes been doing this for 20 years now; if he doesnt sound exactly like he did in 1995, its because he thinks he sounds better this way.
To that end, his sound is definitely more approachable. Darnielles former bleating vocals and rapid-fire strums have been replaced with a thoughtful calmness and tasteful arrangements (no more evident than on High Hawk Season, which features a barbershop quartet). Prowl Great Cain is one of the best pop songs hes yet written, while Never Quite Free has an understated power that exceeds many of his in-your-face early tunes. These and more are great songs. Theres not a clunker on the album, although the mid-tempo For Charles Bronson skirts the edge.
The lyrics on All Eternals Deck will feel intimate to new listeners and familiar to devotees; his favorite motifs of geography, cameras, wild animals and religious themes all make appearances. His loose theme for this album is doomed people, and he puts his lyrics to use chronicling characters real (Bronson, Judy Garland) and fictional (the newly minted bloodsucker in Damn These Vampires, the unnamed protagonist of country-tinged Never Quite Free). But even though theres a connecting thread, theres no overall feeling of accomplishment when Liza Forever Minelli fades.
Musically, theres not much consistency, either; the album takes a page from 2008s scattershot Heretic Pride and just throws down a whole bunch of songs that Darnielle wrote over X period of time. Estate Sale Sign is as close to an old-school rager as Darnielle is going to get these days; the next song is the chilled-out acoustic bit Age of Kings. The aforementioned High Hawk Season is excellent, while Outer Scorpion Squadron is a strings-garnished piano elegy that seems culled from 2009s The Life of the World to Come. While there are thankfully no more odd reggae experiments, there is no consistent mood, except for an underlying one of discomfort (which he intended, although he calls it dread).
I recommend this disc, because I laud The Mountain Goats to everyone. I enjoyed almost every tune on All Eternals Deck, but I cant avoid saying that its modicum of cohesiveness doesnt make it much fun to listen to in a row. Then again, hardly anyone does that these days; maybe Darnielle has realized that. Just go to iTunes next Tuesday, March 29, and pick any song off the album at random. Youll like it, unless its For Charles Bronson, maybe. Indecisive people should start with Prowl Great Cain.