Wednesday, February 7, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1102: The Mountain Goats

I’ve had a good week of musical discovery. In the last few days I’ve checked out Brandi Carlile (loved it!), Weyes Blood (liked it, but not quite enough to buy) and finished things off listening to the Heavy Metal soundtrack (bitchin!).

This evening I had a lovely meal out with my friend Andrew, and came home to write this review. Sheila was still using the computer so I lay down on the couch and listened to the Stray Birds debut album. Now I am feeling refreshed and whole. Yay, music!

Disc 1102 is… All Eternals Deck
Artist: Mountain Goats

Year of Release: 2011

What’s up with the Cover? A whole lot of nothing. This is actually one of those cardboard sleeves that goes over the jewel case but I can’t leave it off because underneath is this graphic, which is even more boring.
I believe this is supposed to look like the back of a deck of cards.

How I Came To Know It: In the last couple of years I’ve taken a deep dive into the Mountain Goats, buying 8 albums. “Heretic Pride” and “All Eternals Deck” were the last to enter the collect because both were difficult to find. I eventually broke down and ordered them through Amazon. Sorry, local record store. I tried…

How It Stacks Up:  I now have 8 Mountain Goats albums, which is only half of the discography, but the best half. Of those 8, I put “All Eternals Deck” at 8th. Hey, someone had to be last, but I still like it.

Ratings: 2 stars but almost 3

By the time I found “All Eternals Deck” my esteem for singer/songwriter John Darnielle (stage name, the Mountain Goats) was already so high that there was a lot to live up to. So if I say some less enthusiastic things in the next few hundred words please don’t judge Darnielle too harshly.

“All Eternals Deck” sees Darnielle sticking to what he knows; sparsely produced indie pop songs with clever lyrics. These lyrics are sung with passion and a fearless conviction to speak the truth, even when that truth is raw and awkward. This album may only be his eighth best, but most artists wish they could write this well.

Darnielle often builds his albums around a concept or theme, using the cohesive set of imagery to draw out observations about himself and, by extension, the human race. The thematic thread for “All Eternals Deck” is a mythical tarot card deck that Darnielle has invented. The liner notes eschew printing lyrics in favour of an imagined card reading, and a short history of this deck of cards. The history of the deck isn’t terribly interesting, but the bigger problem is that the songs don’t convey the notion that these songs involve tarot cards at all.

On “Beat the Champ” Darnielle incorporates wrestling imagery to explore notions of identity and honour, and on “Goths” he relives the reckless glory of youth through the musical forms of his own early years. On “All Eternals Deck” if the theme is there, it is buried so subtly that I missed it entirely. It becomes a loose collection of songs that invoke a lot of imagery of California, but tarot cards don’t feature. It is a promise of connectivity without a payoff.

Musically the album could be more interesting, featuring a lot of basic beats and bass lines that serve as a backdrop to Darnielle’s vocals. The lyrics are solid and the imagery evocative in places, but the music didn’t draw me in as consistently as some of his other work.

He tries some new musical forms, such as on “High Hawk Season” where he has a strange chorus echoing lines behind him in a lower minor key throughout the song. It creates an off-putting weirdness (which I liked) but it also detracted from what was otherwise one of the album’s better songs (which I didn’t).

That said, Darnielle is simply too brilliant to keep himself down entirely. The album opens with “Damn These Vampires” a song where I’m not sure what is happening (although I suspect sure there aren’t any actual vampires). Even not knowing, the tortured rebellion of the track is evident from the opening stanza:

“Brave young cowboys of the near North side
Mount those bridge rails, ride all night
Scream when captured, arch your back
Let this whole town hear your knuckles crack.”

And the dread on “The Autopsy Garland” is palpable, with an urgent and anxiously played guitar strum, coupled with a deep bass rumbling that feels like a gathering thunderstorm. And when Darnielle half whispers, half sings:

“You don’t want to see these guys
Without their masks on.”

You feel legitimately afraid. You don’t know who those guys are, but you’re pretty sure if you ever see their faces you are finished. You have either accidentally IDed them, or they already know it won’t matter. Yeesh.

Many of the other songs are also clever and powerful in their own right, but for the most part not enough to pull me in and transport me like the Mountain Goats so often do when I listen to them. Like I said, it’s a good album, drained of some of its vigor by the brilliance of Darnielle’s other work that surrounds it. Feel free to damn those vampires, as long as you remember to buy them first.

Best tracks: Damn These Vampires, The Autopsy Garland, Sourdoire Valley Song, Never Quite Free

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