There’s that scene in “Walk the Line” when Johnny Cash is singing his gospel songs for the producer at Sun Studio. When the producer turns down his gospel tunes, he tells the young Cash that he doesn’t believe him when he sings. That interaction sums up the Mountain Goats’ newest album, All Eternal Decks: some of the album seems authentic and some of the album seems like a ploy.
At its best, All Eternal Decks sounds like, well, The Mountain Goats: it’s raw and honest. It makes no apologies for being what it is. The album’s first track “Damn These Vampires,” John Darnielle once again proves why he is a master storyteller. His visual lyrics and shaky voice turn the song into a powerful ballad begging to be sung with the windows down. It’s more poetic literature than it is an indie rock song.
“High Hawk Season” combines simple acoustic guitar lines with backing vocals from the rest of the group and Darnielle’s famous song writing to create a soulful melody that would make the baddest of badasses think about shedding a tear.
But at its worst, the album fades into a more disturbing state: a soft rock, toned down and acceptable package reminiscent of 2000s bores Five For Fighting like on the song “Never Quite Free.”
I imagine the group writing songs based solely around Darnielle’s lyrics. The instruments reflect how lyrics should make you feel. “Estate Sale Sign” is lonely, angry blitzkrieg with the desolate lyrics matching the power and speed of the chords from the acoustic guitar. And while on this song the pairing works, the instruments don’t match up on the next song “Age of Kings,” where stringed instruments seemed to be thrown in just for dramatic effect.
The problem with All Eternal Decks as an album is it’s inconsistent: some of the songs seem like subdued gimmicks (“Age of Kings,” “Never Quite Free”) and others are Mountain Goats gold. This isn’t to say I disliked the album. It deserves a decent score for some of the gems such as “Damn These Vampires” and High Hawk Season.” But All Eternal Decks is caged like a beast, and what it needed to be was set loose.