The Mountain Goats – All Eternals Deck (Music Review)

All Eternals Deck cover

The Mountain Goats - All Eternals Deck

Ever notice that fantasy and science fiction themes are common in movies and books, but most music is strictly limited to realistic stories? What is it that gives us such different expectations in different genres? The Mountain Goats stand alone as a “serious” indie folk band that is as comfortable with monsters and cultists as with personal, realistic characters.

The trick is to treat both extremes with the same seriousness: Deep, often inscrutable lyrics and three-dimensional characters dominate all the songs. The band’s style, with simple instrumentation putting the focus on John Darnielle’s reedy but earnest voice, makes both the complex and the emotional lyrics succeed. Their latest, All Eternals Deck, is a perfect example of this. The liner notes go into detail about the apparently-fictional Tarot deck that the album takes its name from, and the songs feature vampires and cultists prominently. A first-time listener could easily assume that the entire album dealt with the magical, but in fact quite a few songs (such as the obvious “For Charles Bronson” and “Liza Forever Minnelli”) stay firmly rooted in the real world.

Of course, the stories are deep and interesting in both cases. “Prowl Great Cain” and “Sourdoire Valley Song” provide back-to-back examples, with the first examining the guilty conscience of a grave robber who betrayed a friend, and the second expressing fascination with Neanderthal culture.

“Estate Sale Sign” is arguably an improvement on Jonathan Coulton’s formula, with an intensely nostalgic look through the eyes of an aged cultist selling off his worn-out relics and sacrificial alter. “Damn These Vampires” opens the album with possibly the perfect Mountain Goats song: Featuring a narrator recently turned to vampirism, Darnielle’s voice and the building piano perfectly convey a stark, pained character with only occasional bouts of intense passion to break up a lonely, emotionless existence. But “Never Quite Free” provides a counterpoint to this, with a simple message of hope for a better life despite past tragedies.

If All Eternals Deck has a flaw, it is the inconsistent feel throughout. It’s normal for a Mountain Goats album to feature such wide variety, but so many early songs feature a sense of building doom that it is disappointing for the second half not to offer any pay-off. Despite the hints at a theme, this ends up being a standard collection of Mountain Goats songs. I don’t want to sound ungrateful about that – there are no bad songs here, and the band continues its musical growth from the early lo-fi days, but it often feels on the edge of true greatness, and this is never quite achieved.

Grade: B

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