Monday, September 5, 2011

On All Eternals Deck

Sometimes I wish I were new to the Mountain Goats.

I don’t necessarily wish to erase all of the impact the music has had on me or how it has influenced my own work, but there are times when I again want to be the 12-year-old listening to 30-second Amazon samples of The Coroner’s Gambit while reading the lyrics and connecting to them in ways I hadn’t connected to much before. Or even, in a completely different reality, I wish I were just an indie fan who had a vague idea of the Mountain Goats and then found their new record, picked it up, and looked at the rather ominous script on the cover, read the mysterious three-word titles of the songs, bought it, and had it change my perception of music.

Naturally, my discovery of All Eternals Deck didn’t happen that way. As Antoine Roquentin says, there are no perfect moments, but learning about a new Mountain Goats record is a damn good one. Seeing the tracklisting, the cover, finally being able to preorder it was all very exciting and a great experience in itself. Learning that it would be accompanied by a cassette tape (!!!) alone got me very excited. I listened for a month or so, collecting my thoughts about it, until one Saturday morning when I took my record player to my room and listened with the intention of writing some semi-coherent thing about it. The semi-coherent thing is part of what you’re about to read.

Before I compare it to any other Mountain Goats record, I’ll say this: All Eternals Deck is an absolutely classic record. While it isn't like much else in John's oeuvre in many ways, it reminds me often of We Shall All Be Healed, which is an unbelievably brilliant work of art, as filtered through a more mature perspective. It's the perspective of one who can both separate the shit that has happened in his life from himself (both the song and John's explanation of "Birth of Serpents" indicate this) and can channel it in oblique and beautiful ways. One motif I’ve picked up from the album is the idea of being restored, a spiritual renewal more profound than on any other Mountain Goats records. In Darnielle’s previous work dealing with a unified theme (I hesitate to say “song cycle”), there is a sense of impending doom throughout, and doom always comes. Look throughout Darnielle’s work and every album with a unified theme ends with very little hope. AED, however, could be said to end on a more positive note; the second side of the album, while clearly pensive, is also very hopeful. Many artists would be direct about this and end an album with this theme with a song like “Never Quite Free.” But this is John Darnielle, of course, and he ends things more obliquely with a song about getting sick in Los Angeles, “Liza Forever Minelli.” But within this song I see the narrator as finding some sort of salvation, knowing that he’ll never escape but finding contentment in his fate.

The individual songs had to settle into my brain as Mountain Goats songs rather than these new things that John just so happens to have made. They are now deep in my consciousness where only my favorite writers and my own songs are. But the individual songs are fantastic and are the ones I show people when I’m in an argument about who is the best living songwriter: Darnielle, of course. In several ways, the songs are different from other Mountain Goats songs because they are almost all anthems. These songs are the most uplifting of John's career and also the most pertinent for the world today. They are inspiring in a way almost like spirituals, which is something we should be grateful John did on this album and not The Life of the World to Come, because the latter would be written off by some as happy pseudo-Contemporary Christian crap. But when was the last time John wrote anything as inspiring as the chorus of "High Hawk Season," or even that of "For Charles Bronson," which I sing to myself when I'm in a bad situation, despite my being an extreme proponent of gun control? “Liza Forever Minnelli” sounds like something you would sing to yourself without being really conscious of it when you’re in a really dire situation, but as I stated above, there’s a sort of optimism within it. It's the same with "Damn These Vampires," which, if my interpretation is correct, is just as poignant a song about addiction as any song John has written."Never Quite Free” is probably the best example. In the hands of a lesser songwriter, it could be completely saccharine and hackneyed, but it transforms to the point that I believe it will be revered in the way we revere "Pale Green Things" and "California Song," but somehow uplifting as well. And if there were any justice in the universe "High Hawk Season" would be regarded as the "The Times They Are a-Changin'" of my generation. These are incredibly well written songs, and I could be emo or whatever and talk about their personal significance to me, but rather I'll just mention that the line "see that young man/who dwells inside his body like an uninvited guest" means more to me than I can say.

Okay, so I will be emo or whatever. First, there’s the line I posted above, which still resonates with me tremendously, but the entirety of “Birth of Serpents” reminds me of something sort of ineffable that I’ve experienced many times but have never been able to articulate. The feeling of going somewhere and remembering what it meant to you, what it meant to a different you. When I hear the line “Permanent bruises on our knees/never forget what it felt like to live in rooms like these,” I think of the almost-cliché image of those rooms in motels that you pass and can feel all of the energy being sucked from you by whatever addict or other miserable being lives in it. I’m 15. There haven’t been many different “me”s. I haven’t lived in rooms like those. But I remember passing by those rooms when I was young and knowing instinctively that something was wrong, and I remember seeing people I love end up in those rooms. In that squalor. With permanent bruises on their knees.

“High Hawk Season” is another song to which I connected immediately. I was, like most Mountain Goats fans, probably a bit taken aback when I first heard it; these strange chants as backing vocals to what otherwise appears to be a fairly standard Mountain Goats tune. As surprising, odd and ultimately effective as they are, the backing vocals are immaterial. It is the rawest version that has the strongest impact: the version on All Survivors Pack. It sounds hushed and tense and filled with this incredible urgency that, as fantastic as it is, is somewhat diluted in the version on the album. The song exemplifies the idea I mentioned earlier of almost being uplifting. This is the feeling of being out far too late downtown and feeling like some incendiary force ready to explode and create and destroy and be a force in the universe. I have not seen The Warriors, but this seems to be the same sort of idea; that feeling that this is occurring at night, the feeling of tension within silence.

Musically, AED reminds me of Heretic Pride, only on the latter many ideas were neither as fully-formed nor as successful as they are here. There are small touches in a number of songs that elevate them completely. I love the harmony vocals of "Damn These Vampires," the synth sounds on "For Charles Bronson," the keyboard on "Liza Forever Minnelli," the unbelievably awesome harmony on "High Hawk Season," and most of all the pedal steel on "Never Quite Free." I hope John pursues this more; more density of sound, more instruments. I also love the production, in part because of how much it must mean to John to work with Erik Rutan. I was very curious as to how Rutan’s production would work; I still find the choice of songs on which John chose to use Rutan a bit odd. I assumed that, when working with a metal producer, John would choose to work on the more intense songs on the album, but none of the songs Rutan produced are particularly intense. Regardless, the production is great, and John’s ability to arrange music shines here more than on previous albums. It makes sense that this album has gotten more attention than prior albums; it's not more poppy, but it's denser, in line with the direction indie has been going lately.

Finally, I just have to talk about All Survivors Pack in greater detail. I almost feel guilty talking about it since I know so many people who wanted it as much as I but didn't get it. But hearing John's creative process is incredible. I read an interview in which John explains some of the songs on AED as coming from the rush of images and words he gets after he watches a movie. ASP is listening to John as he is still bursting with what inspired him; it is a more direct experience of what he must have felt after feeling this inspiration, to have this rush of ideas and to record it in whatever form you have it. It’s the immediacy of some of Darnielle’s early work, a direct channeling of the spark to create with no time for the inspiration to dull or fade. My question is this: what demonic forces kept "Catherine Antrim's Kid" off the record? Not only is it an incredible fucking song, but it's about Billy the Kid and mentions special shoes, ergo it should be cherished by anyone who calls him or herself a Mountain Goats fan.

Despite the fact that, half a year on, one can take AED in context a bit better, it always feels a bit tentative going this deeply into an album that is an artist’s most recent release. I must say, I am very anxious to see how Darnielle will follow it up. Taken as a series of albums, the most recent three records in the Mountain Goats canon are especially satisfying, and there is a feeling not necessarily of finality but certainly of a transformation on AED. This transformation, this healing that seems to have taken place, can only bode well for the future.

By Jamison Murphy. Mr. Murphy is an indie-folk singer-songwriter from Savannah, Georgia. He has released three albums and is working on a fourth. You can hear his music here.

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