The Mountain Goats have released a new album, All Eternals Deck. I will be writing this review as I listen to the album for the very first time to offer the strongest impressions one can have about art, first impressions. I will be very lightly editing the review after the listen-through, however, to ensure that accuracy and decent writing are present as much as possible.
"Damn These Vampires" is a great opening track. It mixes elements of previous Mountain Goats efforts such as vivid and metaphorical lyrics with new elements like a strong drum backtrack. The Mountain Goats are a traditionally-arranged band (guitar, bass, drums) in this new album more so than ever before, and that's not necessarily a bad thing. At times the song sounds like it could have come right off The Sunset Tree, but then there's an instrumental solo with drums, guitar, and bass and you are like, "No, no, this is new, this is new but familiar."
How about some moroccas and drums to start off the second track? "Birth of Serpents" delivers. "Is this somebody's idea of a joke?" No, no it is not. Despite the sounds of Caribbean instruments in the background, this song is very much The Mountain Goats. "Like a jack in the box, like a hundred thousand cuckoo clocks," this song rocks. "Crawl through the tunnel and follow, follow the light Northwest. See that young man who dwells inside his body like an uninvited guest." How could that not force an image into your brain? Near the end of the song, it picks up a lot of pace. This large change of pace in a single song with a strong instrumental finish is something I sorely missed in the last Goats effort. It's good to see it come back.
Looking for something a bit more frenetic (something not heard on any recent Mountain Goats albums,) look no further than the third track, "Estate Sale Sign." With aggressive guitar, bass, and drums matched with fast and angry vocals from Darnielle, this track is definitely more new than familiar, but the lyrics bring the song right back to The Mountain Goats sound. "The Eagle spots the fish. Every murderer in this jungle is gonna get his wish." If that doesn't sound like The Mountain Goats to you, I suggest you grab a few more of their albums.
And with the fourth track, "Age of Kings", it is back to a slow and deliberate sound reminiscent of the Mountain Goats' last album, The Life of the World to Come. Not that this is necessarily a bad thing. However, you might notice that there is something a bit different when listening. What is it, you ask? That would be an orchestral backtrack, and it is a beautiful and effective addition to the song. "Small chambers sinking until they vanish, wolves in the hallway gaining ground. Reach down to the moment when I should have said something true. Shadows and their sources now stealing away with you. Gold light shining on, so many things. In the age of kings."
Hopefully you didn't get too used to the very produced sound of "Age of Kings" because the fifth track, "The Autopsy Garland," goes right back to as organic of a sound as The Mountain Goats have had since signing on with the 4AD label back in 2002. So as of the fifth track, there has been a fast song, a slow song, then a really fast song, then a slow and produced song, and now a medium-paced organic song. The variety in the first part of the album is awesome. More on this variety later.
The sixth track, "Beautiful Gas Mask," is a standard-4AD-Mountain Goats song with a few nice touches. The guitar in this song is unique and there is an occasional strum sound I have never heard from the band before, it is a nice touch. "As we fall, we sing. Paupers hammering the walls of the castle, going to meet the king. Never sleep, remember to breathe deep. Never sleep, remember to breathe. Breathe deep." This lyrical repetition has been present in some of first five songs, it is used sparingly but effectively. And also, it is interesting to note the theme of royalty has carried over from track four. "I can't hear you in the dark. Wish I knew where you'd gone. Know you're there, off in the shadows somewhere. Try to soldier on. Never sleep, remember to breathe deep. Never sleep, remember to breathe. Breathe deep and humbly." Darnielle utilizes a chorus of sorts in this song, and that is not something he does all that often, so when he does it you know it is for a specific reason. And that reason in this track is that he is building upon a story as he goes while still holding to an important theme. Good thing the track is four minutes long or I would have been able to type all this.
The seventh track, "High Hawk Season," is something you have never heard on a Mountain Goats album. The song is basically a capella except there's an acoustic guitar thrown in. It has an incredibly unique sound, and not just for The Mountain Goats, but for music in general. "I heard the wings beat on the wind tonight. As the heat stole power from the darkening light. I saw the streets fill up with people that I knew. People who liked like you. Rise if you're sleeping, stay awake. We are young supernovas and the heat's about to break." The lyrics are very natural and reminds me of peaceful summer days in a small town. With the group of supplemental vocalists, the sound evokes a very nice sense of closeness that is not typically found in Darnielle's work. Don't be scared though, this song, while evoking a sense of closeness still retains a sense of loneliness and desperation that is prevalent in many Mountain Goats tracks. As a side-note, this song also has a chorus.
The eighth track, "Prowl Great Cain," is a nice, simple track. You cannot help but bob your head along with the track, which is not something I once found myself doing with The Life of the World to Come. If you're looking for a faster (overall) Mountain Goats album and have yet to figure out that this is the album for you, let me explicitly state it: If you are looking for Mountain Goats songs that are both never before released and fast-paced, All Eternals Deck is an album you need to pick up.
Now, right after I say how this album is generally faster, the ninth track hits my ears with a slow and deliberate sound. "Sourdoire Valley Song" is a song that made me just shut my eyes and listen. This is a track you want to really let Darnielle's voice paint the song in your mind. The lyrics are so descriptive that we can all create our very own world for three-plus minutes. It is not just a description of an environment though, it is also a song that touches on some emotional aspects we are all familiar with. Darnielle also utilizes high-pitch vocals about two-thirds into the song that I have not heard out of him in quite some time. This is yet another track that combines multiple elements of the Mountain Goats past while still sounding new.
Want some piano? Hit up track ten, "Outer Scorpion Squadron." John Darnielle sings slowly and the piano just flows through the track with other sounds occasionally coming in to offer their purposeful presences. This sound may not scream Mountain Goats, but the lyrics absolutely do, "Ghosts of my childhood stay with me if you would. Find a place where there's water, hold you under 'till you're still. Rake the sands until the surface. Don't let anybody call them ugly." If there was ever a track that said it's possible for a band to do something very new and yet keep the aspects of their music that is most important, this track is it.
"For Charles Bronson", track eleven, brings you right back to a familiar sound if "Outer Scorpion Squadron" was just too new for you to take. The Mountain Goats are not rushing the listener into accepting a new direction, and I think that is the best way to change your sound. "Be grateful for the attention. Set your sights on good fortunes. Concentrate. Pull back the hammer, try to hold the gun straight, try to hold the gun straight. And true. And steady." If you only made this track sound scratchier, you might think it came straight from the 90s.
Ever thought you'd hear a Mountain Goats song start out with a bass drum? Well, with "Never Quite Free," the twelfth track, you get your chance. The song starts out like some sort of radio-styled anthem. Don't let that scare you off though, because if you stick with the song you will get the same high-quality Mountain Goats lyrics. "Tell no-one what you've seen. It's so good to learn that from here the view goes on forever and you'll never walk for comfort and you'll never be alone. See the sunset turning red, let all be quiet in your head. And up about, all the stars are coming out. They shine like steel swords, wish me well where I go. But when you see me, you'll know." Honestly, I kind of wish this had been the final track. It feels like something so new, yet, the lyrics are aimed at the future. There are so many new things going on here, it just sounds like a finale. "Never Quite Free" on YouTube
The final and thirteenth track, "Liza Forever Minelli," brings the pace back down to Earth. While still introducing a few new sounds here and there, the track is still pretty standard fare. Perhaps that is better than ending with "Never Quite Free," after all. The song speaks about celebrity. And you know, this is somewhat fitting. The Mountain Goats have been getting increasing amounts of exposure of late. And it's good to know that Darnielle and his band will "never get away, never get away, I am never ever gonna get away from this place." Well, I am taking "this place" to be their quality of music and the lyrical backbone of their work. I shouldn't take too much meaning out of the lyrics just yet though, there are Mountain Goats songs that haven't fully hit me with their meaning until years after first hearing them.
And so ends my listen. While the first track starts up again, I shall sum up my very disorganized thoughts.
It is important that the band does retain aspects of its past with each successive album. And despite all of the new sounds and styles, this album is still very clearly from The Mountain Goats. You can really hear the progress this band has made since the last album. The relatively recent additions of Peter Hughes on bass guitar and Jon Wurster on drums, although not a part of the old Mountain Goats sound, bring a lot to this album. You can hear that the band has come together and formed a cohesive artistic unit, Hughes and Wurster are not an afterthought anymore. Ultimately, the trio of Darnielle, Hughes, and Wurster have developed a sound that is both new and familiar. If All Eternals Deck is an indication that The Mountain Goats will continue to evolve their sound but still deliver on the unspoken promise Darnielle made when he first recorded music, to deliver brilliant lyrics that paint vivid, emotional, and powerful pictures, then sign me up.
I know that some Mountain Goats fans will never like anything hi-fi quite as much as they liked the lo-fi stylings of last millenium. And to them, I am sorry, this album is not a step to the past. Instead, this album is the biggest step towards the future the band has made since signing on with 4AD, and arguably the biggest step they have ever taken. And you know, to this long-time fan, that is a very good thing.
Additional note: Despite a continuation of the 4AD-label sound that The Mountain Goats have had for a while now, All Eternals Deck is produced by Merge Records (the same label that Arcade Fire is with).
Recommendation: Purchase ASAP.