Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Mountain Goats - 'All Eternals Deck'

Never one to rest for long, John Darnielle is back with yet another amazing full-length. Just five months after The Extra Lens dropped Undercard, Darnielle returns with All Eternals Deck, courtesy of his regular thing, The Mountain Goats. Recorded in spurts while on the road, the record has a loose cohesion and a bevy of tonal shifts.

At this point, The Mountain Goats’ M.O. should be understood: Darnielle writes the best lyrics and sings them like a pro. He used to play minimalist acoustic lo-fi recorded on boom boxes, but then he started cooperating with larger indie labels like 4AD and, lately, Merge Records. Bassist Peter Hughes and relative newcomer Jon Wurster (three albums and counting for the Superchunk drummer) provide the rhythm.

Perhaps due to its start-stop creation, All Eternals Deck feels underwritten in spots. Darnielle usually cranks out a couple of songs with big hooks every album. There are always a handful of tunes you know you can scream regardless of your blood alcohol level. Previous winners include “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” “Heretic Pride,” and the almighty “This Year.” I only get that feeling from this record fleetingly. In fact, the most rocking tune, “Estate Sale Sign,” left the least impression on me. It’s energetic and what-not, but I don’t get much of a thrill out of it while driving. Good, not great.

But then, the record picks up considerably in its second half, starting with the goofy/awesome barbershop harmony of “High Hawk Season.” “Prowl Great Cain” packs a massively catchy fit of nihilism (“I feel guilty but I can’t feel ashamed / Prowl through empty fields Great Cain”) and a nifty piano line. Much like on The Life of the World to Come, TMG utilizes piano to great effect here, whether it be on the rockin’ murder party “Cain” or the delicate Life throwback “Outer Scorpion Squadron.” “For Charles Bronson” and “Liza Forever Minnelli” deal with encroaching doubts. Between the two is “Never Quite Free,” and its got such a darn nice outro, the kind that could end an uplifting movie about failure.

I don’t mean to paint All Eternals Deck as a disappointment because it’s not. It’s surprisingly unified despite being a tour record with four producers. It’s up there with David Bowie’s Aladdin Sane and Jackson Browne’s Running on Empty. Oddly enough, after reading the liner notes, I realized that all my favorite songs on the record were helmed by John Congleton (“Prowl Great Cain,” “For Charles Bronson,” “Never Quite Free,” and “Damn These Vampires,” which is somehow better than every song on every Twilight saga soundtrack).

But coming off such a stellar run of albums last decade – a flawless chain from 2000’s The Coroner’s Gambit to 2009’s Life that is without filler or failure – All Eternals Deck feels like a solid “B.” The first half goes by in a blur, the second half is solid. It’s Mountain Goats. You don’t like this album? Darnielle probably already has something new in the chamber.

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