The Mountain Goats Steadily Climb

Courtesy of Merge Records

Every March, the swallows return to San Juan Capistrano, and in fierce competition with those small birds for unnoticed consistency is John Darnielle, who has just released his 20th outing in as many years under the moniker The Mountain Goats: “All Eternals Deck.” The current incarnation of the group, with longtime contributor Peter Hughes on bass and Superchunk’s Jon Wurster on drums, returns with 13 more tracks of literate, sincere modern folk for the NPR crowd.

Themed around an apocryphal tarot card deck, the eponymous “All Eternals Deck,” which, we are told, is a few months younger than the “Inhuman Impulse Deck,” “to which [the “All Eternals Deck”] owes stylistic debt” but little else. If the liner notes are to be believed, and they are not; the “All Eternals Deck” was notably “more hopeful than its predecessor,” which “freely predicted dire consequences and unhappy endings.”

The older deck was intended for specialists and the younger meant for the general public. The older deck had one layout, the younger three layouts. The two decks share many of the same cards, but with finer artistry in the younger deck. The one card totally distinct in the “All Eternals Deck,” the Half-Dragon, has been completely lost to time.

It’s a convoluted back story, which seems more in line with the context of the album’s production — it’s the Goats’ 13th album since they shifted from cassette to modern technology, all of the 13 songs have three-word titles to go with the three layouts of the “All Eternals Deck,” and the liner notes assign each song a cryptic message juxtaposed against a grainy televisual image and book-ended with pictures of static rather than with the content of the songs themselves.

The album also finds the band experimenting with recording, cobbling together four different sessions in four different studios with four different producers.

All of the work done on the production, artwork and back story side of things place in sharp relief a set of disappointingly familiar songs.

Now, even a mediocre batch of Mountain Goats songs are, in my book, cause for celebration, and while “All Eternals Deck” doesn’t take many chances, it does feature a few compelling experiments.

“Estate Sale Sign” is the most up-tempo, aggressive song of the bunch (if not of the entire Goats oeuvre) and offers an aggressiveness and intensity expressed across the instrumentation, vocals and lyrics. The punk-tinged folk-rock form is an interesting twist on the old Goats hallmark, which often leaves the aggression for the lyric sheet, as in wronged-nerd fantasy-scapes like “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” or “Collapsing Stars.”

“High Hawk Season” features distinctive background vocal melodies from the North Mountain Singers that are both baroque and classic Americana. The result, however, is uneven. The verses have a remarkable choral quality, but the choruses recall the choir in a “Monty Python” sketch.

The standout of the album, the penultimate “Never Quite Free,” is an intensely un-ironic slice of sunshine. With lyrics that affirm, over soaring piano and steel guitar, that “it’s okay to find the faith to saunter forward, there’s no fear of shadows spreading where you stand, and you’ll breathe easier just knowing that the worst is all behind you, and the waves that tossed the raft all night have set you on dry land,” the song offers sentiment without sentimentality and hope without cynicism — a real feat in a cultural-historical moment when there are few feelings more cynical than hope.

Elsewhere, there are a few songs about misunderstood celebrities like Judy Garland, Charles Bronson and Liza Minelli, in the same vein as older songs about H.P. Lovecraft, Linda Blair and horror film villain Michael Myers. Indeed, the songs making up the last half of the album, with the exception of the already mentioned “Never Quite Free,” feel like footnotes to previous Mountain Goats songs.

Not unlike the titular tarot card deck, a more hopeful (and thus, we should add, more cynical) version of an earlier deck, the album offers minor, forgettable variations on older works, only with finer artistry and meant for a broader appeal. The Half-Dragon card, lost to the deck but present, I would argue, in “Never Quite Free,” is the hard kernel of artistic brilliance caught in an album that is, otherwise, merely competent.

While the Mountain Goats’ reputation for lyrical genius remains intact, the musical growth that made albums like “The Sunset Tree,” “Get Lonely,” “Heretic Pride” and “The Life of the World to Come” so entrancing are only present in fits and starts. We can only hope that by the next time the swallows reach Capistrano, the Mountain Goats will have found a new way to shuffle their deck.

Rating: 3/5 Stars