John Darnielle invites us to follow his complicated stories for a 13th time.
Lewis G. Parker 2011
John Darnielle used to walk onstage with just a guitar and joke, "Hello, we're The Mountain Goats." But with every passing album, Darnielle's poetry songs that he used to sketch roughly and beautifully with just a guitar and voice have turned into pocket symphonies whose sound has expanded with their creator's visions. On his 13th studio album using the band's name (and the third as a three-piece), there is hardly a hiss or a bum note as Darnielle strums, yells, sings and prays for his and his characters' salvation in a tapestry of gothic and occult dramas which require not just your full attention, but a lyric sheet as well.
The narratives of the songs aren't as daunting as the previous album, The Life of the World to Come, where every song was named after and loosely based on passages from the Bible. But the days of sitting down with a Mountain Goats album and being able to catch a whole story in two minutes, as on anthemic ode to misery No Children from 2002’s Tallahassee LP, are as far behind Darnielle as his old day-job as a psychiatric nurse in California. All Eternals Deck, named after a pack of tarot cards, plays like a series of short films which come with no explanation or conclusion. Characters arrive on the scene, freak out, remember old loves, get lost in dreams, and then leave the stage like in one of Robert Lowell's poems.
The instrumentation is surprisingly excessive, with strings, drums and piano adding atmosphere to songs which rely more heavily on the musical accompaniment to tell the story than on any previous album. It's telling that the centerpiece, High Hawk Season, is a scary gospel strum with just a guitar, bass and male harmonies, with a chorus that mystifies us like so: "Rise if you are sleeping, stay awake / We are young supernovas and the heat's about to break." While the other songs, intelligent pieces of art that they are, may intrigue, it's disappointing that only one song here compels us to really feel anything.