For the purpose of being clear, it must be said that the Mountain Goats would be an afterthought of a band without lead singer John Darnielle. The man is more than the group’s centerpiece; he is its entire reason for being. On All Eternals Deck, this point is driven home consistently. There is very little to appreciate aside from the singer’s sophisticated lyrics and candid vocals, but when Darnielle is on his game, the Goats are harmonious and evocative. Such a disposition leaves the album in a gray area of enjoyment — sometimes it’s powerful, sometimes it’s awkward, but often it’s just flat and uninteresting.

The Mountain Goats

All Eternals Deck
Merge Records

All Eternals Deck begins with tempting promise. The first track, “Damn These Vampires,” is undeniably uplifting, and is emphasized by piano chords that become progressively more bold and resolute. However, even in what is probably the album’s best song, it seems that Darnielle is trying to be vague and mysterious to add unnecessary depth. While some may try to impose their own meaning into his words, in many cases the truth seems to be that the lyrics don’t mean anything, but sound eloquent and profoundly philosophic: “Feast like pagans, never get enough / sleep like dead men, wake up like dead men.” The singer clearly has lyrical talent, though he is occasionally inhibited by his own presumptuousness.

“Estate Sale Sign” is a fine specimen of what occurs when a band takes a stab at rock and isn’t equipped for it. The melody could be close to catchy under other circumstances, but much like Darnielle’s own sound, it is hurried and out of breath, while the instruments are mashed together in the unrewarded hopes of sounding edgy. At times, “Prowl Great Cain” sounds suspiciously like “Damn These Vampires” dressed in a different pair of hipster jeans. With a 13-track run time, the Goats could’ve easily cut it without consequence.

Darnielle’s prowess at songwriting is the only thing to make All Eternals Deck worth the effort. In “Birth of Serpents,” his lines are clever and nuanced (if a bit rambling), and give some insight into his own personality: “See that young man who dwells inside his body like an uninvited guest?” Two tracks later, “Age of Kings” is heavy and grand, showing that while Darnielle can be creative under the right conditions, he instead intentionally chooses to fill the record with mundane material.

In 2005, New Yorker critic Sasha Frere-Jones called John Darnielle “America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist.” While this may have been true on previous releases, there’s no reason to suggest that the claim still holds water. The California native would do well to strip down his overly enigmatic wordplay and go with lines more true to heart. While he can clearly create witty rhymes and references, they seem to lack any connection with the singer himself. All Eternals Deck contains glimmers of promise embedded in the general tedium, but unfortunately it’s not enough to save it.

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