The Mountain Goats - "Damn These Vampires" (All Eternals Deck)
On his own website, John Darnielle described his latest album as being like a “70s occult-scare movie where one of the scenes involves a couple of people visiting a storefront fortune teller, getting their cards read, and then trying to feel super-hopeful about what they hear when what they’re visibly actually feeling is dread,” or, alternatively, “Burnt Offerings, Go Ask Alice, and that one scene in The Warriors where they’re on the train and the sun’s coming up and they’re safe but you know the scars are permanent now.”
That’s an oblique set of references to describe a very particular mood, but it’s more or less accurate on the 13 (ominous number alert) songs that make up All Eternals Deck. For the narrators here, they realize everything is falling apart, and yet they still try to delude themselves otherwise. The voice of the first song, “Damn These Vampires” spends his nights crawling on his hands and knees, amongst others who “sleep like dead men / wake up like dead men,” but nevertheless comforts himself with the idea that “someday we won’t remember this.” Then there’s the narrator of “Estate Sale Sign,” who is apparently the leader of some kind of rapidly unraveling cult, who still believes that “every martyr in this jungle is going to get his wish.” And in one of the better acts of rug-pulling, the most uplifting line – “and you’ll breathe easier just knowing that the worst is all behind you” – is on a song called “Never Quite Free.”
Yep, All Eternals Deck is the latest batch of thematically grouped songs from The Mountain Goats, America’s leading literary folk rock band. A new album from Darnielle and Co. has become an annual (or at least biennial) occasion: This is, depending on how you count some of his early releases, either his 13th or 14th full-length album. Once again, he’s joined by Superchunk’s Jon Wurster on drums, and long-time Mountain Goat Peter Hughes on bass, in what has become a fairly stable line-up. It’s no longer news that Darnielle has moved past the trademark boombox production of his earliest albums, but it’s worth noting that he’s settled into another identifiable style. The typical Mountain Goats song is mid-tempo, cleanly recorded, lyrically dense folk rock. And while Darnielle explores all kinds of dark themes in his lyrics, he rarely tries to convey that through his vocals, which are measured and a little upbeat. As a result, there’s a distance between the trauma in the lyrics and the overall mood of the song, which only reinforces his albums’ theme of optimism in the face of the worst circumstances.
So, how does it stand up? Pretty well. Writing about gothic disasters gives Darnielle a chance to show the full range of his imagination, and a number of songs -- “Prowl Great Cain” and “Estate Sale Sign” are two examples -- demonstrate how far he’s come as a band leader. But it’s difficult to make an apples-to-apples comparison between an album about meth addicts (We Shall All Be Healed) to an album about breaking up (Get Lonely), or an album about the Bible (The Life of the World to Come) to an album about the end of the world (All Eternals Deck). Which I suppose is the whole point.