The Mountain Goats
All Eternals Deck (Merge)
On the surface there's not much to advertise All Eternals Deck as the least accessible Mountain Goats record since John Darnielle made the leap from crude boom-box recordings to studio polish nearly a decade ago. Despite a much-touted production cameo from Morbid Angel's Erik Rutan, the band hasn't strayed from their usual polite-bordering-on-offensive acoustic rock, and Darnielle's brainy verses are spit from different points on his usual spectrum of tender sneer. Instead, the difference seems most easily pinpointed as a matter of focus; most recent Mountain Goats discs have had a single emotional or narrative theme as their backbone, but if there's one for All Eternals Deck, it's not apparent after several spins. (The imagery's a little more macabre than usual, but Darnielle might just be trying to impress his metal friends.)
It remains obvious through the record that Darnielle is one of indie rock's finest poets, though only "Birth of Serpents" ("From the Oregon corners/To the Iowa corn/To the rooms with the heat lamps where the snakes get born") ranks with his better compositions. ("Never Quite Free" might have come close but for an appalling steel-guitar arrangement.) What keeps All Eternals Deck from connecting is that Darnielle's talent for lyric and melody aren't paired with clear emotions or ideas, and this whole-cloth shift toward the cryptic robs the Mountain Goats of the moments that sneak up and disarm with cutting sentiment. It is not a bad record, but it is a minor one, and a poor introduction to the group as their profile continues to grow.