The Mountain Goats: The Eternal's Deck (Merge)

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The Mountain Goats: For Charles Bronson
The Mountain Goats: The Eternal's Deck (Merge)

The dramatic, almost declamatory, voice of John Darnielle (aka The Mountain Goats) is as distinctive as it is well enunciated. You get every word he sings, which means you are dragged from one poetic line to another where images tumble over one another (think Dylan '65-'66) and if there is a story it comes from an accumulation of ideas and impressions rather than from any narrative.

A previous album Heretic Pride (a Best of Elsewhere 2008 selection) seemed to have a loose theme of redemption and this one takes its title from a possibly apocryphal deck of fortune cards which pre-dated Aleister Crowley's tarot cards by a decade. (I'm cribbing from the liner notes, I doubt this is true.)

But that lends a cachet of mystery to these songs -- which, to be honest given his obscure and imagistic lyrics, hardly required it.

Darnielle's urgent deliver is commanding and when married to a taut guitar slash -- as on Estate Sale Sign which recounts a breakup in terms of once treasured household objects being divided up -- has a punky kick to it, like Jonathan Richman/Modern Lovers or New Zealand singer-songwriter Don McGlashan in especially angry mood (Prowl Great Cain, and at the end Brisbane Hotel Sutra over piano is pure McGlashan in poetic mood).

But most of the album is mid-tempo, acoustic-driven songs given discreet touches from piano and strings, and when he gets reflective (the beautiful Age of Kings with its slow cello, the dramatic tension and alt.country of Beautiful Gas Mask) this album is engrossing.

By the little count-ins which start some tracks you also sense that this was recorded very live in the studio (High Hawk Season) and captures just that moment.

However it needs be said that many will find the sheer volume of words which tumble out here across 14 songs (only one beyond four minutes, five fewer than three) not an easy prospect, but longtime Mountain Goats fans know to pace themselves.

Whatever Darnielle is thinking about takes time to assimilate and is best sampled slowly.

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