While The Mountain Goats’ last album took us through Bible verses, “All Eternals Deck” takes listeners on a loose mystic journey, John Darnielle boldly mixing his personal relationships up with the mystical beginning, middle and end of Man.
There’s the origins of humankind in “Sourdoire Valley Song”, the Fall from grace with the snakes and Cars guitars of “Birth of Serpents” and, in between, the fighting-off our impending doom. The straight-forward rock of “Beautiful Gas Mask” does the latter best, having us rise from our knees and assuring “someone’s coming to reward us, wait and see.”
But the songwriter isn’t preaching, nor laying it out lightly. The band’s brand of rock with folk storytelling mixes grotesque imagery with the reality of screwed up romances and dissolution with former convictions, of “fat men,” Darnielle’s nasally voice drowning his companion “’til you’re still” and kindly requesting you “lick the sweat from my brow.”
In between, he kills off Judy Garland in “The Autopsy Garland” and name-checks her next-of-kin in “Liza Forever Minnelli,” which includes a good line about Eagles’ “Hotel California” to be repeated for ever and ever, amen. Another famous figure gets his day as Darnielle announces, “This song is called ‘For Charles Bronson’,” a sort of literary mechanism that injects his bespeckled face next to the silver screen great’s.
“Never Quite Free” has some of my favorite lyrics and some of the band’s strongest playing, pinballing between piano and a slide guitar. “Believe in sheltering skies and stable earth beneath / but hear his breath come through his teeth,” he warns, likeably, right before he’s off to war: “Wish me well, where I go / but when you see me / you’ll know.”
Perhaps it’s the same battle he has with the fanged super-enemies of “Damn These Vampires” (what’s up with all these antagonists that bite?), which also rolls toward the mêlée with a sentimental piano chord. “Let them hear your knuckles crack,” he advises. Darnielle’s voice does its own cracking on frantic “Estate Sale Sign” a metal version of folk that sadly concludes everything’s for sale, the stuff on which he used to most rely. Like he sings in “High Hawk Season,” “the heat’s about to break.”
But its also on tracks like “Estate” where his rhyming schemes are cut short to fit the rocking beat, and seem incomplete; on other songs like “Prowls Great Cain,” his verbosity tosses long syllables in like stumbling blocks, yet he pushes through those words as if he had no other choice in writing them. “High Hawk Season” is its own little weird problem, with a mini-male choir that do no favors for Darnielle’s idiosyncratic voice, indulgent in its contrast. Meanwhile, another outlier “Outer Scorpion Squadron” incorporates jazz chords and a light string section. It’s a beautiful break.
Earlier this year, Conor Oberst tried his hand (again) at a similar album, combining coded, mystical language with his own dreary outlook. But where Bright Eyes’ “The People’s Key,” was bogged down with unchecked philosophizing and histrionics, “All Eternals Deck” is powerful, Darnielle’s command of language self-assured and – at times – even funny. Fans are going to really like this album, and non-fans may be driven to flip the rest of the cards over, just to hear more.
By Katie Hasty – John Darnielle’s apocalyptic outlook