Those familiar with John Darnielle’s work under The Mountain Goats umbrella are very familiar with it. It ain’t too difficult to spot a song by the loveable Darnielle. His uncanny, snarl-fueled delivery functions within an anti-formula that only works for him. For 13 full-length studio albums and dozens of cassette and single releases, the guy has pretty much been delivering the same vocal melodies the same way for his near 20-year career. Some would say he’s written the same song hundreds of times. But his entrancing lyricism and subtle growth during that time have proven him to be a consistently endearing figure within the loose genre of indie folk. Underneath his warped narratives of lower-class turmoil, his aesthetic mutation has been gradual, but ever-present.
With All Eternals Deck, the 13th LP from the now steady three-piece version of the Mountain Goats, Darnielle roped in Death Metal legend Erik Rutan (Morbid Angel, Hate Eternal) for production duties. When the announcement came, it seemed to indicate only one thing: this album was gonna be a swift roundhouse kick to the face wrapped in Death Metal fury. With all the talk of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” and other Goats’ allusions to the genre, it made sense. But All Eternals Deck proved something else entirely–that in addition to their normal shredding and headbanging, metalheads also know how to oversee deeply moving records with subtle orchestrations. Go figure.
Darnielle stressed two things prior to the release of All Eternals Deck: 1) Contrary to popular expectation, it would not be a Death Metal record. 2) That it would be filled with those moments from which we desperately try to escape: “Reversals of fortune and faces at the window and sudden unexpected screams of triumph here and there. Possible exits from the long-locked basement. These sorts of moments.” (via the band’s official site)
And somehow, the ill-guided Death Metal expectations allow for the record’s darker scenes to fill the void left by distortion and harsh yelps that never were. The album’s minimal, stark black cover also fittingly casts a shadow over the record, reinforcing a gloomy, frustrated, and tired mood. It’s about as Death Metal as folk can get, without even touching the genre remotely, if that makes any sense.
From the set’s first track, “Damn These Vampires”, Darnielle jumps directly to areas that might actually be addressed on Death Metal records. The mood is almost southern gothic. Over morose, downtempo grand piano and subtle hi-hats, Darnielle sings of cowboys captured by vampires and bronco truck drivers crawling away from a bite-fest: “Crawl till dawn, on my hands and knees/God damn these vampires, for what they’ve done to me.” There’s probably a deep metaphor in there, or maybe Darnielle’s just been watching and reading the Twilight series. Or, better yet, it’s commentary on the overcooked vampire fad itself. The latter would make sense given the paradox in a Darnielle-spun nugget like “see two young savage things, barely worth remembering,” though it doesn’t seem congruous with Darnielle’s style. Either way, the opening track blossoms into a layered, wholly acoustic affair that rides on precise drumming, clean fingerpicking, weighty piano chords, and bright xylophone. From the get-go, this record showcases the intricate workings of a real-live band set on creating a cohesive set of songs.
And that’s the key here, really. Eternals is not a Death Metal record in the slightest, but easily the most bandy album in the Mountain Goats discography. It’s a collection of songs played together by a group of musicians (Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster and longtime Bassist Peter Hughes) with unmistakable chemistry and authentic energy, not just a group of session musicians gingerly backing Darnielle’s three-chord folk songs. This idea began with 2005’s The Sunset Tree, blossomed on 2008’s Heretic Pride (noted as the first Moutain Goats “band” record), and seems to have reached its peak here. Many of these tracks begin with off-mic count-offs. Some contain unrefined, distanced backing vocals that display a fraternal air. These multi-layered, spacious, mostly acoustic tracks hit hard, exhibit structural freedom, create penetrating atmospheres, and explore somewhat new aesthetic territory for these hoofed high-risers. Lush, dueling acoustic guitars, pounding bass drums, fluttery keys, intricate but sparse rhythms; this three-piece is a tightly wound band of outlaws.
But of course, it’s still Darnielle’s show, and his narratives are as revelatory as ever. “Birth of Serpents” follows “Vampires” with more occult imagery to feast our ears upon, but “Estate Sale Sign” returns to Tallahassee-esque lovelorn frustration through a ferocious acoustic romp that visits a crummy yard sale with backhanded nostalgia. Darnielle shoves as many now-meaningless household castaways into the track as he can, always grounding us back to when these objects meant something, when the couple at hand was trying to build something special: “Crude little women idols and aviator shades/ The trinkets and the treasures we brought back from the crusades/ Some guy in an Impala shakes his head when he rides by/But, I remember when we shared a vision, you and I.” Clearly, Darnielle can still deliver us a crumbling marriage on a silver platter.
The post-apocalyptic “Beautiful Gas Mask” sees the first strums of an electric guitar and one of the finest vocal melodies on the record. “Never sleep, remember to breath deep,” forewarns Darnielle, presumably regarding a venture into some toxic wasteland, before achingly swooning, “I can’t hear you in the dark, wish I knew where you’d gone.”
Darnielle has slowly raised his modest, lo-fi child into a mature, fully functioning adult. All Eternals Deck displays control, attention to detail, and cohesion. While the groundwork was laid nearly two decades ago, the Mountain Goats’ cuts no longer hiss with raw tape or the buzzing of metal strings. Now they pound with powerful rhythms and explode with complex orchestrations. And though this is certainly not the first Mountain Goats record to prove the strength of Darnielle’s songs or how far they can be developed, it might be the tightest he and his “bandmates” have ever sounded together.