The new Mountain Goats record, All Eternals Deck, is all about patience. This time around, songwriter John Darnielle hasn't offered up any obvious hook or blatant concept — no Bible-verse theme or autobiographical narrative. Instead, there's just a series of songs that slowly reveal themselves, lodging lyrics and clever musical moments in your mind.
"I keep little notebooks by a company called Red Horseshoe," Darnielle says from his home in North Carolina. "They're these neat little things that I've been carrying around for several years. This particular one had a few good titles for the Heretic Pride record — 'Lovecraft in Brooklyn' was originally in it. I don't believe in luck, but I started to feel like it had a certain potency, so I started culling titles from there, and I saw all these that had three words. And that sort of became this random little formal restriction."
Confining all the titles to three words did end up providing a jumping off point for Darnielle's meandering mind. "Three, among new age people, necromancers, heretics and fanatics, is supposed to be a number with power," he adds. "I don't believe in any of that, but it's fun to pretend that you do. So that started opening doors for me onto playfully occult things ... the thread of it, the shimmer, had this really bitching heavy metal appeal to me. So, there isn't a story or a theme that you can pin down, but I feel like it's about dark, netherworldly things and what it means to be obsessed with them."
As with all Mountain Goats' music, it's the strange little perfect phrases that jump out first. Darnielle isn't just a songwriter — he's also a writer, and has a poet's gift for piecing words together in a particularly affecting way. On "Sourdoire Valley Song," when he sings, "Keep to ourselves mostly / Few friends and fewer closer friends," there's a wonderful melancholy to it. And there's a lovely nostalgic quality to the visual metaphor that opens "For Charles Bronson": "Catch a lucky break / Try to make it last / Rig a blanket curtain up between the present and the past."
All Eternals Deck also features some fun musical surprises — most notably, barbershop-style harmonies on the standout "High Hawk Season." Dan Perry, a friend of Darnielle's who shares his affection for archaic music, wrote the arrangement. "The more records I make, the more I feel that with every record, any crazy idea you get, go ahead and pursue it," Darnielle says. "It felt so different. It felt risky to me. I thought, maybe people will hate this. And I was like, 'Good, you need to do things that maybe people will hate.' But instead, that has been, seriously, hand-to-God, the favorite of everyone who talks to us." He also collaborated with a classical composer on arrangements for "Age of Kings" and the beautiful, cinematic "Outer Scorpion Squadron."
Patience is important in another way, too: The album's closing tracks are some of the strongest Darnielle has ever written. "The problem is, you put out this record, and people will say the album runs out of steam," explains Darnielle. "They assume it's been put together by a label and front-loaded with hits. But we always try to put our favorite ones last. If you listen to the album repeatedly, those will be the ones that open up the most. They have the most to offer. I think the last one is one of my best vocal performances ever. I always worry when we put the good songs at the end that half the people who get this record are never even going to hear them."
The final song, "Liza Forever Minnelli," opens with the arresting statement, "There's the part you braced yourself against, and then there's the other part," delivered with exquisite confidence, and eventually earns a smile, as Darnielle promises, "Anyone here mentions 'Hotel California' dies before the first line clears his lips." "Never Quite Free," stacked with big soaring crescendos and quixotic platitudes, has a surprisingly anthemic feel, its musical palette completed by a pleasantly surprising pedal steel. Lastly, the orchestral "Outer Scorpion Squadron" wows with its straightforward beauty — and it doesn't sound like anything this band has done before.
"That's the idea with a record: You start with things all coiled, and they have to unravel at some point," Darnielle adds. "But to me, when things unravel, that's sort of when you see the interesting things. You don't tend to put the things that are super up-tempo at the end. They kind of belong during that initial burst at the opening of the record. But to me, it's most interesting when the fire sort of dies away, and you have these burning coals."