Synonymous with singer/songwriter John Darnielle, The Mountain Goats ceased being his sole effort midway through the ’00s, when bassist Peter Hughes joined full-time. Yet with drummer Jon Wurster (also of Superchunk) welcomed into the group as the third official Mountain Goats, they’ve graduated to an honest-to-goodness band. In the past, Darnielle and Hughes have created bigger arrangements with percussion and additional instruments, but those were often fleeting moments on more stripped down collections. All Eternals Deck, the band’s latest, is the band’s first as a full band, fleshing out Darnielle’s folky, elegantly penned tunes into still folky, still elegant, but much bigger and richer songs.
The personnel isn’t the only thing to evolve on All Eternals Deck, however. Recorded in four studios with four different producers, it marks the first time that the band, at least circumstantially, has incorporated an element stemming from Darnielle’s long documented love of metal. There are no metal songs here, mind you, but rather a production credit from Erik Rutan of legendary death metal outfit Morbid Angel. That said, the thematic elements on the album, involving the occult and fortune telling via tarot readings, actually would make for fine metal fodder. Turning away from the heartbreaking true life struggle with mortality and spirituality of 2009′s The Life of the World to Come, the group has gone a little more sinister, if less directly devastating. While the calendar may be stuck on spring, Darnielle clearly has his mind set on the dark autumn festivities of Halloween.
Given that Darnielle has written about everything ranging from the Bible to his own invented Alpha Couple, in addition to deeply personal confessions and biographical stories about Prince Far I and H.P. Lovecraft, the incorporation of some indirect occult themes doesn’t seem that much of a stretch. And for that matter, the album sounds more or less like what one might expect from the Mountain Goats in 2011. There are a good number of restrained, delicate songs, a handful of upbeat pop songs, a few tracks that slowly build into stunning and soaring arrangements, and Darnielle’s trademark wit throughout. In that sense, All Eternals Deck is most closely aligned with 2008′s Heretic Pride. Both are non-autobiographical albums boasting only a loose common thread between all of their songs, yet both albums contain a good number of great songs that sound great as part of the album or detached from it.
The first instance in which the full-band approach truly shines is the furious rocker “Estate Sale Sign,” a fast-paced standout that finds Darnielle barking a list of items such as, “Little wooden idols/ and aviator shades/ the trinkets and the treasures we brought back from the crusades,” before angrily snarling “Every martyr in this jungle… is gonna get his wish.” One track later, the Goats trade in the harder rocking approach for a gentler, more stunningly orchestrated approach on “Age of Kings.” It’s a sweeping and beautiful track, one that swells with film score grandeur while maintaining the conciseness and accessibility of a pop song. And “The Autopsy Garland,” one of the handful of tracks produced by Rutan, is heavy on bass, its rumble ringing out like Spaghetti Western guitar, a fitting backdrop for Darnielle’s eerie balladry, which returns to the spooky refrain of “You don’t wanna see these guys without their masks on.”
To some degree, The Mountain Goats have made some notable changes on All Eternals Deck. And yet, it feels as if nothing has changed at all, save for the fact that almost every track prominently features drums. As a songwriter, John Darnielle may likely never run out of ideas or inspiration. But no matter where his muse takes him, his classic songwriting sensibility and inimitable voice remain unmistakable.