It's been long enough since the Mountain Goats' John Darnielle abandoned the homespun sound of his early work that, for all but the most dedicated superfans (and make no mistake about it, Darnielle has quite of few), complaining about the increase in fidelity over the past decade has almost completely subsided, at least as far as the mainstream press is concerned. One imagines this has been a welcome development for Darnielle, but it's at least a little disappointing for the rest of us: those early recordings really did have spark that's been missing from much of his most recent work, and it's not doing anyone any good to ignore it. There was the undeniably great three-album run of Tallahassee, We Shall All Be Healed and The Sunset Tree, but since then, there's been a disappointingly sleepy, almost lite-FM quality to most everything he's touched. The lyrics have remained great, of course, and he continues to seem like the smartest guy in the room, so he tends to get the benefit of the doubt. Thankfully, there isn't much doubt to speak of with the new album.
Produced in part by death metal figure Erik Rutan, All Eternals Deck is the 13th proper Mountain Goats album, and the third since they officially became a trio, featuring longtime collaborator Peter Hughes on bass and Superchunk's Jon Wurster on drums. Tempting as it may be to call it a return to form, it's not exactly. Instead, it's the sound of a band finally learning how to sound like a band rather than a group of hired guns. Wurster is given the freedom to work his considerable magic, and Peter Hughes sounds thrilled to interact with him. As a result, Darnielle sounds re-energized as well. His vocal melodies are a bit more lively than they've been over the past few years, and he seems to be having fun, even as the subject matter remains weighty, often focused, like so much of his material, on the effect our past will have on us if we'll let it. Songs like "Beautiful Gas Mask" and "Prowl Great Cain" have a rehearsal-space easiness about them, while "Estate Sale Sign" is a perfect example of the unhinged, punk-tinged tracks he's gotten away from of late. There are slow songs, of course, but they're injected with new life: a gorgeous string arrangement lifts "Outer Scorpion Squadron," and "High Hawk Season" gets a really great, old-timey vocal arrangement courtesy of The North Mountain Singers. There are enough of these little touches here that you'll realize more precisely what's been wrong with the last couple records, but more importantly, that you'll feel confident we're entering the Mountain Goats' third run of greatness.