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The Mountain Goats
All Eternals Deck Nick Southall , April 11th, 2011 09:20

If you know The Mountain Goats, and John Darnielle, who is their singer, and songwriter, and guiding light, and platonic essence, and real essence, and history, and founder, and only consistent member, and who actually is The Mountain Goats in the same way that Richard D James is Aphex Twin or Polly Jean Harvey is PJ Harvey or Madonna Louise Ciccone is Madonna or Gary Barlow was Take That circa Back For Good (which is to say that The Mountain Goats are Darnielle's brand as well as his band), then you will know what All Eternals Deck sounds like. If you don't know The Mountain Goats: WHAT IS WRONG WITH YOU?

I should state that I am not normally one for lyrics – in fact I am often dismayed by music critics who are actually little more than failed literary critics, because they seem unable to deal with music qua music, and instead deal with music as lyrics, as words, as if "yellow matter custard" mattered more than the sonic maelstrom behind it – but for The Mountain Goats I make an exception. This is because John Darnielle's words are exquisite; funny, moving, detailed, intelligent, sometimes surreal, occasionally accusing and bitter ("fat rich men love their 12-year-olds" being a notable instance on 'The Autopsy Garland'), and always, always clever and worth paying attention to. And, most usually, fictional. Sasha Frere-Jones, who is the music critic for posh New York magazine The New Yorker, once described Darnielle as being "America's best non-hip-hop lyricist". I am inclined to agree.

The Mountain Goats sound, ever since 2002's Tallahassee, my first encounter with them (him) and their first non-no-fi record (after a string of albums recorded on something powered by batteries), has been simple; guitar (usually acoustic), bass, drums, perhaps some piano, and Darnielle's voice, which is a tremulous thing, nasal, adenoidal, from the head rather than from the gut. It probably makes casual Mariah Carey fans feel sick. It is a voice a little like Bob Dylan's voice. It seems to go at angles to the music, and be a barrier to enjoying it, but actually, if you like that sort of thing, it is a remarkable boon to the songs; expressive to the point of hysteria, perfectly suited for delivering stories.

So The Mountain Goats sound is simple, and unadorned; All Eternals Deck sounds like a band, playing live in a room, sans gimmicks and gizmos; there is no sampling, no sequencing, no autotuning, no synthesizers. Just some people, and some instruments, and some songs. And at one point some more people, who are a choir, and who sing too. Some bits are quiet; others are louder, when the drums are hit harder, and the guitar is amplified electrically and the strings struck with gusto, and Darnielle raises his voice to deliver a line or more with more power, and that hysteria is hinted at.

(The CD booklet, incidentally, contains a few paragraphs of exposition regarding the album's title; All Eternals Deck is a deck of fortune telling cards which is not unlike, but which predates, Crowley's Tarot Deck. I am not sure what this means in relation to the music or the words. Perhaps it means nothing. The booklet for Tallahassee contains paragraphs of praise for "ambient dub", which is a genre evidenced nowhere within the album's actual musical content. Just saying.)

All Eternals Deck is the sixth Mountain Goats album I have received in exchange for money (they have released 13, the first in 1994). I like them all, but I like this one, and Tallahassee, a little more than the others. I like the line in 'Birth of the Serpents' about a "young man who dwells inside his body like an uninvited guest", and I like the delightful drum roll just past two and a half minutes into the same song (and I adore the tiny yelp of excitement that precedes it). I like that 'Estate Sale Sign' makes acoustic guitars sound like the busy, dirty, angry spirit of rock & roll is still alive.

I like that 'Age of Kings' incorporates (rather than grafts on) a string arrangement, which feels, in the context of The Mountain Goats, deliciously unusual and impressive. I like the choral arrangement on 'High Hawk Season'; I like how it's not just bolstering a chorus the way so many hapless indie fools who wield choirs like axes to chop wood would do; it actually adds tonal and textural variation throughout the song, contributing to the story. I like that Darnielle has written a song with an exquisitely pretty melody and christened it 'For Charles Bronson'.

I like the piano-adorned climax that culminates the drama of 'Prowl Great Cain'. I like the slide guitar and tumbling drums housed within 'Never Quite Free'. I like that the whole album is recorded and mixed beautifully, carefully, that it moves from delicate to exciting and back again, which is how songs like these ought to move. I like All Eternals Deck; I like the fact that I suspect, in a few months time, it will have seeped into my pores and by then I will love it.