The Mountains Goats are nearly always my favourite band. And John Darnielle is my favourite ever songwriter bar none. He’s an intensely likable, principled, genius of a frontman. Yet the last few albums – though solidly good – haven’t blown me away. Nothing has come close to knocking 2005’s The Sunset Tree off the top spot.
The latest album All Eternals Deck starts strongly with ‘Damn These Vampires’ – laid back with piano and brushed drums – and ‘Birth of Serpants’. Both songs are the work of the polished, besuited Darnielle we met on The Life of the World To Come rather than his younger, scruffier incarnation.
‘Estate Sale Sign’ is a nod to the inspired frenzy for which Darnielle is so adored. But elsewhere, the emotions on All Eternals Deck are positively restrained and the vocals are for the most part calm and reassuring.
This album sees Darnielle take inspiration from the lives of film stars for three songs: “tough guy” actor Charles Bronson, Liza Minelli and her mother Judy Garland. ‘The Autopsy Garland’ is atmospheric and foreboding, with the shiver-inducing lines “You don’t want to see these guys/Without their masks on”. ‘Song For Charles Bronson’ is an internal monologue, Bronson pepping himself up in his later years: “Hit the gym each night/Stay cool and seldom speak/Keep the heart of a champion/Never let them see you’re weak”.
The biggest surprise comes at the halfway point. ‘High Hawk Season’ features a male voice choir, all “doo doo doos” and “ahh ahh ahhs”. They’re not a cool gospel choir, but rather a geeky, academic-sounding bunch with perfect diction and weird vowel noises. The kind that lots of Mountain Goats fans (hi!) probably sang in at school. I find it incredibly moving – it sounds like repressed people finally letting themselves go.
All Eternals Deck‘s lyrics are beautiful: sharp and full of lovely imagery (“rig a blanket carpet up between the present and the past”). The songs on this album aren’t obviously going to become live anthems like ‘Up The Wolves’, ‘This Year’ or ‘No Children’. They live within a different sphere – one of careful orchestration and reigned-in emotion. The Mountain Goats have come a long way from screaming into a tape recorders. And All Eternals Deck is the most elegant rendition yet of their more reflective sound.
You can hear the whole album streaming on NPR.