‘THE TAB ON the tea bag said “Love what is ahead by loving what was come before.” But what came before was no dream you wake from, it was human sacrifice’ – Jean Valentine, Diana. This is how the liner notes to All Eternals Deck, appropriately the 13th studio album by John Darnielle, begins. I refer to him here as simply John Darnielle because the band behind him hasn’t always been there, he began in his garage with a $10 tape recorder and a scratched up acoustic guitar wailing to the moon. I’m sure he’d agree that he’s still in the same position, it’s just the garage is bigger and there’s a band behind him. I referred to this as appropriately the 13th because this is an album about a deck of fake tarot cards, about fate, humanity, horror movies, life to come, death behind us and the importance of numbers and signs. It is also a curse breaking album as the unlucky 13th is also one of their best, it’s an album so good that Darnielle’s personal favourite of his own songs wasn’t even on the albums but a demo cassette released with pre-orders. On this, the fourth anniversary of its release, I wanted to use this time to talk about what isn’t an album as enshrined in history as some others on this feature but it is one that sings out like little else this century. If you want to listen to it as we go, it’s only about 43 minutes long and its thirteen tracks long. I told you, the numbers are important.
‘Crawl till dawn, on my hands and knees. Goddamn these vampires, for what they’ve done to me.’ Damn These Vampires is an audacious album opener in the fact that it’s one of the more obtuse tracks on the record. It doesn’t burst in like you’d expect the first track to do, instead it calmly and eerily sets up the moral and emotional template for the record; the album much like the fictional tarot card deck it is built around is not something that you get from what’s in front of you but is built in the personal interpretation of the symbols you’re given. What I personally enjoy about Darnielle’s lyrics is that despite the tautological nature of this statement, they have an intoxicating lyricism. One of the more sincerely beautiful proclamations on the album comes in ‘Soudoire Valley Song’ when he opines – ‘keep to ourselves mostly, few friends and fewer closer friends, lead a long life if you’re lucky., Hope it never ends’. The lyrics veer between the uncommonly beautiful and the starkly terrifying creating a fascinating diametry where the brutality of the one half makes the softer half more comforting but also vice versa. In 2012, the year after this album was released, there was a campaign to make Darnielle the US Poet Laureate and this album shows his linguistic capabilities in full flow. In Beautiful Gas Mask, the repeated refrain of ‘never sleep, remember to breathe deep’ comes to feel like it’s not just a character mantra but a reminder to the audience that they are not along, that the music is here for them in the darkness, that the fog is deep and the gas is thick but that we can and will emerge. Then again, that’s just my interpretation; it could be and probably is just rubbish.
Musically, it is one of the most diverse albums, Mountain Goats have produced, veering between melancholic jazz, furious rock and (dare I say it) intricate folk rhythms. When Darnielle began to venture out of his comfort zone and into the studio, there was a worry that some of the charm, some of the fuzz would be lost but what was gained was a greater sense of variation. No longer was it the one man strumming the same, sad chords. By this point, it is nine years into the band era of the Mountain Goats career and it shows as the band have become more relaxed with each other, a large portion of the band’s sound can be hypothetically put down to Jon Wurster, drummer for Superchunk and all round indie stalwart. Wurster’s methodical and precise drumming style holds the band in place but never seems to be too robotic adding in little grace notes that remind you of the band’s inherent humanity. The sounds are vibrant, a gentle piano rhythm on Outer Scorpion Squadron’, a beautiful slide pedal over ‘Never Quite Free’, it is an album of subtle cohesion as it is both diverse and impeccably designed to feel linked and purposeful. It is an album that feels designed to be an album and not just a semblance of tracks and singles. How much can you say that about these days?
Anyone who knows me, knows I talk about Mountain Goats a lot, as a lot. It’s important to find bands that mean something to you, albums that you put on and it’s not just nostalgia taking you back to the moment but it’s the music itself that ‘s important to you. I’m not overselling it to say Mountain Goats are an important band to me, they have a new album coming out next month and I could barely be more excited, it’s about professional wrestling and frankly how thin must the venn diagram intersection be of Mountain Goats fans and wrestling fans? Darnielle doesn’t make music to be famous, he didn’t make All Eternals Deck for your praise, he made it because he wanted to. He just happened to get to get paid for it too. I always like to leave on the artist’s words not my own so I think to summarise, here’s a quote from one of my favourite songs off the album ‘Never Quite Free’ may it bring you comfort or fear, I don’t know but here’s hoping it brings you something:
‘the sunset turning red, let all be quiet in your head
And look about, all the stars are coming out
They shine like steel swords
Wish me well where I go
But when you see me, you’ll know’.