And yes, for all my love of sonic overload and obscurity, a dude with an acoustic guitar who’s known for his lyrics sure can work for me. Brilliantly.
It’s kinda funny, I don’t remember exactly how I learned about the Mountain Goats almost twenty years back but when I came to UC Irvine in the fall of 1992 it was almost as if I had stumbled into an outlier of Shrimper and the Inland Empire without really putting the pieces together. Franklin Bruno’s Nothing Painted Blue released “Swivelchair” around that time, Peter Hughes had been doing a radio show at KUCI up until fairly recently, I saw the two of them play at the campus pub at separate occasions, then there was the Big Breakfast though I can’t remember if that was a bit later…there was all this stuff going on, while I was scrounging more shoegazey stuff and techno and wondering what exactly Suede sounded like. Then my friend Eric J. Lawrence’s band Peoplemover covered “Sendero Cuminoso Verdado” in concert and gave me a tape and I was all “Wait, who is this guy again? And why do I keep hearing about him?”
So twenty years on and there’s Peter Hughes on Letterman, Jon Wurster on drums and John Darnielle himself singing about heat lamps and snakes and a hundred thousand cuckoo clocks earlier this year and I’m all smiling at how great it sounds, how warm and immediate, actually anthemic without being an overblown anthem or feeling skullcrushingly stupid. And over all that reach of time I’ve slowly but surely gone “Yeah, this guy’s got something here,” and seen him for the first time at the Terrastock 2 festival in San Francisco in 1998, just himself and his guitar and a packed crowd, and I end up reviewing the rarities compilations for the All Music Guide and and and. I could go on, I’ll spare you. Those who know, know (and I’m not even a hyperfan compared to some, it’s more like when I first read his Last Plane to Jakarta work when it was still a fanzine and thought, “Good god, and the guy can not only write lyrics but brilliant criticism too!”).
I acknowledge backstory to dispose of it — one reason why I like the Mountain Goats and certain other bands are how they make their most recent work the thing I actually want to hear the most. Sure, there’s beloved older releases and all — I still can’t get over the fact that Tallahassee is on the verge of being ten years old, for instance — but this is about 2011, it’s about what was released now, and if an artist is releasing something now that you’re loving and playing into the ground as opposed to releasing something that you play once or twice and then go back to the older stuff, that right there is a sign.
It’s a little hard to try and talk about something by someone who is very articulate and clear about things in general, you feel like you can’t measure up to his or her own words about anything else. Pretty glad I never did an actual review of this album anywhere, that would have sucked. (I did do this brief interview, though, and that show they did was great.) What’s lovely about this album in particular is partially explained by that interview, the fact that something done via a variety of short sessions feels fresh and immediate as a result, that it also is sequenced like a motherfucker. Seriously, this is RIDICULOUSLY well-sequenced. He’s always had a good knack for that but I don’t know, maybe switching to Merge upped things a notch.
The attraction in the album’s sound lies in the illusion of unity, not merely in terms of order, but how everything appears to have only been that way. An excellent song or performance appears to have ‘always’ been that way, it can’t be any other way, say. For some people the Mountain Goats were always a boombox, an acoustic guitar and a singer first and foremost, maybe only. I understand that sentiment well enough, sure, and the fact that there was a limited edition cassette release that featured John D.’s demos for the album recorded just that way helped provide a compare/contrast moment and all. But you know, the ‘real’ version of the album isn’t that one to me, how could it be? More to the point, how could anyone not want that end result?
An excellent album leaves you almost forgetting what’s next because the song you’ve just finished hearing is so good you’re still riding it a bit and then the next one starts and you smack your head and go “Damn and how did I forget about this one?” Like the way that “The Autopsy Garland” and its sense of calm warning ends and then you slip into the groove of “Beautiful Gas Mask” and it’s like the best late seventies Dire Straits and Steely Dan recording quality and sense of performance transmogrified into John D.’s approach and I’m all “Well yeah, duh, of course.”
Snippets of lyrics slip through my brain as much as the music, constantly reinforcing each other or stepping forward then back. Backing male chorused vocals on “High Hawk Season,” elegant and strong, shivering strings on “Age of Kings” during the break, the brawling rush of “Estate Sale Sign,” memories and snapshot moments, singing in the concluding “Liza Forever Minelli” about how whoever mentions “Hotel California” next dies before the first line clears his lips, piano and strings on “Outer Scorpion Squadron” as the lyrics detail how to conjure up a ghost and it all becomes this cascade of a lot of moments that you either know you’ve been through or think you might have done or will do or might react the same way to but not with the quite rush of words. Then you find yourself embarassed that you would presume that kind of connection but everything about the album, like so many moments of the Mountain Goats beforehand, can’t help draw you, not in per se, but close. A voice in your ear, a feeling in your heart, a melody in your head.
All this and a song that turns Charles Bronson’s work ethic into a model for life, not everyone’s maybe, but that makes all those Chuck Norris jokes seem like the hollow humor it is. That and a keyboard part that completely lifts the song just perfectly, right at the moment it appears. Why explain further?
Purchase All Eternals Deck via Merge Records.