It seems like a quibble to say that the songs on The Mountain Goats’ new release, “All Eternals Deck,” are great, but they don’t fit together. But if you’ve heard the mastery that is “The Sunset Tree,” it’s hard to not want that total package every time.
It should be noted that even if John Darnielle were in paint-by-numbers mode, it would still be great:. His basic palette is an incredible mix of cultural and academic references, pop psychology and emotive sentiments crammed in to mature, guitar-based indie-pop stories. He’s been doing this for 20 years now; if he doesn’t sound exactly like he did in 1995, it’s because he thinks he sounds better this way.
To that end, his sound is definitely more approachable. Darnielle’s former bleating vocals and rapid-fire strums have been replaced with a thoughtful calmness and tasteful arrangements (no more evident than on “High Hawk Season,” which features a barbershop quartet). “Prowl Great Cain” is one of the best pop songs he’s yet written, while “Never Quite Free” has an understated power that exceeds many of his in-your-face early tunes. These and more are great songs. There’s not a clunker on the album, although the mid-tempo “For Charles Bronson” skirts the edge.
The lyrics on “All Eternals Deck” will feel intimate to new listeners and familiar to devotees; his favorite motifs of geography, cameras, wild animals and religious themes all make appearances. His loose theme for this album is doomed people, and he puts his lyrics to use chronicling characters real (Bronson, Judy Garland) and fictional (the newly minted bloodsucker in “Damn These Vampires,” the unnamed protagonist of country-tinged “Never Quite Free”). But even though there’s a connecting thread, there’s no overall feeling of accomplishment when “Liza Forever Minelli” fades.
Musically, there’s not much consistency, either; the album takes a page from 2008’s scattershot “Heretic Pride” and just throws down a whole bunch of songs that Darnielle wrote over X period of time. “Estate Sale Sign” is as close to an old-school rager as Darnielle is going to get these days; the next song is the chilled-out acoustic bit “Age of Kings.” The aforementioned “High Hawk Season” is excellent, while “Outer Scorpion Squadron” is a strings-garnished piano elegy that seems culled from 2009’s “The Life of the World to Come.” While there are thankfully no more odd reggae experiments, there is no consistent mood, except for an underlying one of discomfort (which he intended, although he calls it “dread”).
I recommend this disc, because I laud The Mountain Goats to everyone. I enjoyed almost every tune on “All Eternals Deck,” but I can’t avoid saying that its modicum of cohesiveness doesn’t make it much fun to listen to in a row. Then again, hardly anyone does that these days; maybe Darnielle has realized that. Just go to iTunes next Tuesday, March 29, and pick any song off the album at random. You’ll like it, unless it’s “For Charles Bronson,” maybe. Indecisive people should start with “Prowl Great Cain.”