Photo illustration from The Mirror, annual of the University of Maryland School of Dentistry, 1973
I become excited when someone I know has that moment where they "get" the Mountain Goats - for a lot of people, the simple melodies and distinctive voice of John Darnielle are off-putting to the point where it's hard to appreciate the excellent songwriting skills the man has. But, if you can get past a potentially grating first impression, there is an amazingly deep and rewarding songbook to get acquainted with - simply put, if you can get with what Darnielle is doing, you will find that he is the best at what he does, bar none. And it looks like the new Mountain Goats album, All Eternals Deck, is another excellent entry point - it's the third that the band has produced in its new power-trio line-up with Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster. Darnielle has continually refined his ability to optimize the musical assets at his disposal, and this new album takes his ability to mold arrangements to lyrical content to new levels.
Recent Moutain Goats records have roughly fallen into one of two categories - theme/concept albums and song anthologies. His theme albums are the best known because they are easy to reduce to a blurb - Tallahassee's ruminations on alcoholism and co-dependency, The Sunset Tree's memories of troubled youth, and The Life of the World to Come's biblical study of mortality are easy to warm to. But Heretic Pride, Darnielle's last "short-story" album, had some of his best songs in recent memory, and All Eternals Deck could be seen as a sequel. The songs come from multiple sessions with different producers, and each set of songs adds a different facet to the album, from the big anthems produced by John Congleton to the more atmospheric mood pieces from the Scott Solter sessions.
Some common threads run through the songs on All Eternals Deck - the ghosts of Charles Bronson, Judy Garland, and Liza Minnelli are conjured to evoke the decay of fading Hollywood, and this theme casts its shadow across the more personal tales of fighting tooth-and-nail against fate. A couple of the album's song pairings fall a little flat ("The Autopsy Garland" and "Beautiful Gas Mask", for example, are decent songs but don't flow together well), but Darnielle is becoming increasingly deft with nuanced arrangements. "The Age of Kings" features a heavenly string arrangement, "Prowl Great Cain" has a fierce energy, and I'm a total sucker for the "keep-fighting" anthems like "Never Quite Free" that Darnielle does so well. The most surprising and pleasing number may be "High Hawk Season", which inserts Darnielle and his acoustic guitar into an eerie barber-shop quartet arrangement by the North Mountain Singers - like the best songs on the Mountain Goats' post-lo-fi records, it's an affecting combination of Darnielle's songwriting and a few musical elements that make the lyrics cut with a visceral force.
"High Hawk Season" by the Mountain Goats