Yeah, I know it’s been forever.
Anyway, change and evolution in an artist’s can be a “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation. Audiences and critics are just as likely to call an artist out for doing some tweaking or pushing their boundaries as they are for not changing a thing. It seems like the only way to avoid derision is to make the change with complete conviction, or to make sure that you’re damn good at what you do.
The latter is good news for John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats. In any of the groups incarnations from Darnielle alone with an acoustic guitar to the band’s current rock trio set up, listeners always know what they’ll get with The Mountain Goats: poetic, literary, and dark lyrics, Darnielle’s distinctive bleat, and smart instrumentation. All Eternals Deck only has one change to add; the band’s lo-fi roots are almost completely removed.
That’s not a bad thing. Actually, the gentle beat of opener “Damn These Vampires” wouldn’t have the pull it has if the song sounded ragged around the edges. The production on All Eternals Deck hits the sweet spot: it’s perfectly crisp and clear while still sounding organic. Such a production benefits downbeat, gorgeously arranged songs like “Age of Kings” and “Outer Scorpion Squadron”. The latter in particular stands out; piano and strings rise and fall while Darnielle delivers some genuinely tearjerker lyrics (“Ghost of my childhood stay with me, if you will/Find a place where there is water, hold your breath til you’re still”).
But All Eternals Deck isn’t 13 toothless tales of tragedy. The Mountain Goats are, in practice, a three piece band, and a solid one at that. “Estate Sale Sign” gives the album an early shot in the arm of energy through barebones folk punk instrumentation, and its propulsion is matched only by “Prowl Great Cain”.The band is more muted, but just as lively on other cuts; “The Autopsy Garland” has a tense atmosphere made only more threatening with the repeated lyric “You don’t want to see these guys without their masks on”.
The most singular track on All Eternals Deck is “High Hawk Season”, which is situated right in the middle of the album. Darnielle goes it alone with his acoustic guitar, and in place of backing instruments, he is joined by a men’s a capella quartet. The song is lyrically a call to arms, and by the final cry of “We are young supernovas, and the heat’s about to break!” damn if I don’t want to shout along.
One of–if not the–hallmarks of The Mountain Goats is Darnielle’s lyrics. Literary, poetic, and often very dark, his lyrics have a storyteller’s spin and a knack for smart couplets that transcend Facebook statuses and tweets. While All Eternals Deck doesn’t have any particular lyrical theme, survival and perseverance come up multiple times in “Liza Forever Minnelli”, “For Charles Bronson”, and “Damn These Vampires”. Elsewhere, the usual meditations on life and circumstances come up, offering a mix of despair and hope: things suck, but we’ll get out of it. Maybe.
All Eternals Deck is an incredibly consistent album. Whether it’s the rollicking “Estate Sale Sign” or reflective “Outer Scorpion Squadron”, the quality never really dips. By that same token, it’s hard to look at one song as the definitive “best” since even the less “interesting” songs are still enjoyable. Easily 4 stars.
tl;dr: The Mountain Goats offer more of the same, but why complain when they do what they do so well? 4/5.