John Darnielle is a rare breed of songwriter: hailed unanimously for his lyrics whilst remaining relatively limited, musically. Since the early, scratchy recordings under The Mountain Goats guise, there has been progression, sure, but the musical template of the albums has remained pretty primitive: simple guitars, occasional piano, with occasional bursts of orchestra. But there’s a reason why, every time a new Mountain Goats album appears, hacks can’t refrain from wheeling out the New Yorker’s “best non hip-hop lyricist in America” quote.
The records are lessons in narrative based songwriting, each (with the exception of Heretic Pride) tackling a theme or issue, usually something from Darnielle’s own past. Having dealt with methamphetamine abuse (We Shall All Be Healed), his abusive stepfather (The Sunset Tree), divorce (Tallahassee) and breakup (Get Lonely), 2009’s The Life of the World to Comewas a game changer: an allegorical manipulation of the bible to expound upon his experiences with illness and death. The album was criminally overlooked and for me, is their greatest achievement to date: powerful, intelligent, and infinitely tuneful.
And so, with critics putting their backs out to reach for that quote, I’ve found myself quietly underwhelmed by All Eternals Deck. It’s not that album number nineteen* (nobody knows for certain if that is true) is bad, because it’s good (very good in parts). Parts of it, though, seem like Mountain Goats by numbers and it’s one of the very few occasions that a John Darnielle recording has left me wanting more.
Stylistically, it’s arguably richer than some of its immediate predecessors. The thoughtful and sparse piano of Life of the World to Come has been replaced by a more polished sound, ironically considering Darnielle enlisted death metal singer Erik Rutan to produce. There are splashes of strings and woodwind, but ultimately, it’s unmistakably a Mountain Goats record. Darnielle’s 45-year-old nasal yelp shows no sign of wearing thin just yet and there are some moments of sheer beauty.
‘Beautiful Gas Mask’ is the sound of rolling down a desert road, top down and is almost Calexico-esque. The introspective, vibraphone-led ‘Liza Forever Minelli’ is gorgeous, both tracks boast melodies strong enough to compete with the (as always) superb lyrical content. ‘High Hawk Season’ is the best track here and one of the Mountain Goats’ most sonically inventive moments to date: the frontman’s vocals laid on a bedrock of Gregorian chanting. Over the rest of the album, there are a couple of let-downs (Darnielle has never sounded quite as tepid as he does on the prosaic ‘Never Quite Free’), but for the most part, it’s business as usual.
Which begs the question: what exactly is the album lacking? The conclusion I keep leaping to, is that across the many characters, quotable lines and hummable tunes, there doesn’t seem to be one single theme holding them together. It’s meditative, sometimes brooding. There are moments when it seems like death may be on the agenda again, until it’s betrayed by a contently chiming piano. The buoyancy of mood seems to somehow detract from the conviction of the songs here. Songs about vampires and bandits are interesting and entertaining, but they don’t dig their claws into your heart like Darnielle’s material of yore. We should never bemoan a man trying to lay his demons squarely in the past, but (as also demonstrated on the disappointing Heretic Pride) he is at his best when hurtling head on towards them, foot jammed on the pedal.
Listen: Mountain Goats – Damn These Vampires
Written for The Line of Best Fit