Taking in three different producers and studios has worked out well for The Mountain Goats on All Eternals Deck.
This unusual approach could have produced uneven results, but all those involved including death metal guitarist and producer Erik Rutan, have kept the band’s central theme of survival intact. The end result is a remarkably consistent album.
There is a breadth of styles. Mostly the familiar folk rock territory for the band, some added indie hooks, a barbershop singing number and no actual death metal, despite Rutan’s involvement. But as with the range of producers this variety of styles also manages to create a clear sense of purpose.
For those unfamiliar with The Mountain Goats the band was created by John Darnielle, first as a solo artist and then developing into a tight trio backed by Superchunk’s Jon Wurster on drums and Peter Hughes on bass. It’s also worth mentioning that Darnielle is one of America’s best living lyricists and storytellers.
Adoring fans will know what Darnielle is about and All Eternals Deck shows him on top form. The songs, while not exactly single material have a broad commercial appeal, more like 2008’s Heretic Pride than their far more sober previous album The Life of the World to Come.
The songwriting on All Eternals Deck is very much from Darnielle’s perspective as an abuse survivor. Sometimes the battle against such emotional demons is directly his own; sometimes the battle belongs to others, including some well-known names such as Charles Bronson, Liza Minnelli, and most notably Judy Garland on ‘Autopsy Garland’. It is this song about Garland dying of an overdose that is a macabre highlight, as she looks back at her abuse by MGM executives on the Wizard of Oz set, where she was hit for laughing and pumped full of drugs. Seriously, has there ever been a scarier lyric than “you don’t want to see these guys with their masks off”?
While Garland survived her demons through continued drink and drugs Darnielle survives his through song. He lived in an abusive home as a child, an experience he lays bear in 2005’s Sunset Tree. He says of All Eternals Deck, “if The Sunset Tree was about living in the middle of abuse, this is more of a surviving album.”
‘Never Quite Free’ is among the most uplifting songs about surviving, with Darnielle offering advice to abuse survivors everywhere, with lyrics such as, “It gets all right to dream at night” and “you’ll breathe easier just knowing that the worst is all behind you.” If anyone else sang this it would be cheesy. When Darnielle sings it you know he means it. That’s his appeal in a nutshell.
Aside from such serious subject matter there’s some damn fine songs here as well.
‘Damn These Vampires’ is superb and a sure-fire candidate for an incidental music slot on future episodes of Vampire Diaries. ‘Estate Sale Sign’ is anthemic stuff, and sure to rank alongside Tallahassee’s ‘No Children’ as a live favourite. The beautiful ‘Age of Kings’ is another highpoint on an album that shows Darnielle’s song writing and survival instincts grow stronger with each release. 9/10
by Joe Lepper
See Also: Ten Bands That Changed Our Lives: The Mountain Goats