It hadn’t occurred to me before, but after listening to All Eternals Deck, I’ve realized that part of the reason for the Mountain Goats’ name has to be John Darnielle’s voice. Particularly in his higher range, Darnielle can frequently sound a bit…well… goaty. He kind of bleats when he sings. You have to decide for yourself whether or not to count that against him, but I’m certain some people will find Darnielle’s singing a bit annoying at times. For the most part, he reminds me of a cross between Franz Nicolay and early, yelly They Might Be Giants (think “Youth Culture Killed My Dog”) with maybe a dash of Ben Gibbard in there on certain tracks.
I had given the Mountain Goats a try a few years ago (I think the album was Heretic Pride) and didn’t really get much out of the experience, but my friend Tim (currently of Texas and soon to be of Colorado) recently sent me a copy of All Eternals Deck, citing my own admission that I’d review a legitimate copy of pretty much anything. I honestly welcomed the opportunity to see if the band has grown on me and, wouldn’t you know it, I have enjoyed the shit out of All Eternals Deck for the last few days.
It didn’t take me long to acclimate to Darnielle’s voice, but I have a soft spot for singers whose voices are described as “obnoxious” (like Alec Ounsworth and Tom Waits). I have gotten in arguments with people about the value of a strident singing voice; those arguments usually see me declaring loudly that if Bob Dylan had sounded like James Taylor, nobody would have given a shit what he had to say. Love it or hate it, you pay attention to Bob Dylan’s voice on those early songs. The basic summation of my argument is that music doesn’t have to be pretty to be good, which should explain to you why I think Joe Strummer was a better singer than Josh Groban.
For his part, John Darnielle fits his nasally yelp to some pretty dramatic moments on All Eternals Deck, especially on “Estate Sale Sign,” where he barks, “Every martyr in this jungle/ is gonna get his wish.” Given the thin tone of his voice, it’s pretty impressive that Darnielle is able to sound convincingly menacing. He can be pretty when he wants to be, and he proves it on tracks like “Never Quite Free,” “Beautiful Gas Mask,” and especially “Sourdoire Valley Song,” which is probably the single most beautiful moment on the record.
I think part of the appeal to me of All Eternals Deck is that it has all the ingredients (oddball voice, strummed acoustic guitars, songs about actresses) of “typical” indie rock, but it also has songs that belie that classification. I’m thinking here of “High Hawk Season,” which features a vocal trio (the North Mountain Singers) singing the bass lines while Darnielle strums his acoustic guitar. I like “High Hawk Season” more every time I listen to the album, especially the line “We are young supernovas.” It’s a pretty anthemic line for such a quiet song.
Lyrically, Darnielle is deserving of all the accolades that are being showered upon him. If I think about it long enough, I could find a line in every track of All Eternals Deck that I wish I’d written. There’s “It’s hard to tell gifts of the spirit/ from clever counterfeits” from “Prowl Great Cain.” Or the aforementioned line from “High Hawk Season.” Or maybe “Let this whole town hear your knuckles crack” from “Damn These Vampires.” But no, my favorite line on All Eternals Deck – indeed, my favorite line I’ve heard so far this year – is from album closer “Liza Forever Minnelli”: “Anyone here mentions ‘Hotel California’/ dies before the first line clears his lips.” If you want the Official Bollocks! Seal of Approval for your song, a great way to earn it is to threaten to murder people for singing Eagles songs. Yes. Amen, Brother Darnielle.
I want to share with you something that just happened, literally as I finished writing the last paragraph. I listen to albums while I write about them and “Never Quite Free” was playing as I thought about what else I’d like to tell you about All Eternals Deck. And as I sat here and pondered the album and listened to the midrange piano lines, I thought maybe I should talk about the instrumentation, which is spare but almost ruthlessly effective – only a handful of instruments appear on each song, but they’re used perfectly.
Then I just sat here listening to the end of “Never Quite Free,” where the pedal steel really steps to the forefront and I couldn’t really do anything. At all. Until the song ended.
I get really giddy when I’m watching a movie or a play or reading a book and I see that the writers know when not to write dialogue. Lots of writers cram words into moments where they are inadequate; they have two characters holding each other in the middle of the night, exhausted from whatever trial they’ve just overcome and then the writer has one character say something stupid like, “I love you” or “I’m so glad we made it through that blah blah blah.” Words do not do justice to those moments and – no matter how great you think you are – you are going to destroy something beautiful by having characters speak. It’s the literary equivalent of strangling a puppy. Show us the people together and we’ll understand how they feel (incidentally, I’ve watched two and 3/4 seasons of Battlestar Galactica and, though the show has some weak-tea moments, those writers consistently know when to keep words the fuck out of a scene). That all may seem entirely disconnected from the new Mountain Goats record, but here’s the tie-in: “Never Quite Free,” at the precise moment when worse songwriters would slather on a big outro chorus (possibly featuring a gospel choir) or some squealing, wanky guitar solo, just rides out on the piano and that swelling steel guitar part. John Darnielle, for all his clear lyrical ability, knows when words are useless and “Never Quite Free” is the gorgeous fruit of that knowledge.
I’ve read, on the internet just a few minutes ago (we believe in rigorous research here at Bollocks!), that some diehard Mountain Goat fans see All Eternals Deck as something of a sellout album, though the main reason given seems to be that it has a higher production value than previous outings. This is the sort of information that makes me glad my only real context for experiencing this record was my friend sending it to me and saying, “I’m curious to know what you think of this.” Because I think All Eternals Deck is fucking beautiful and if John Darnielle had to sell out to make it, I say fetch his limo, Jeeves, and make sure it’s stocked with the teenage prostitutes of his choice (Dear Mr. Darnielle: you may print that sentence on the packaging of all future pressings of All Eternals Deck if you wish, absolutely free of charge).