Notes on relevant occurrences of the number three:
1. The Mountain Goats are now a trio, comprising main man John Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster.
2. The band first appeared on record as a trio on 2008’s Heretic Pride, three years ago.
3. This album marks this line-ups third record together.
4. The title of All Eternals Deck contains three words.
5. Like its title, each of the album’s 13 songs also has three words in its title.
To us, maybe none. But to Darnielle’s characters, this kind of overreaching line of repeating symbols (with religious implications) is exactly the kind of sign they would hitch their wagon to. The title of All Eternals Deck is a reference to tarot, and for the people of this album, their cards have been laid bare. They know the path ahead, or have seen the path behind crumble, and they are ready to ascribe meaning to any and all artifacts in their purview. Sometimes it’s justified, sometimes it’s delusional, and sometimes it’s downright self-destructive.
But like so many characters Darnielle has delivered to us before, these zealots of the rock bottom still find the slimmest slivers of hope in the otherwise hopeless. If nothing else, they belt out their troubles from the bottom of their lungs, owning their mistakes, becoming almost empowered by them. That bold insistence that there is hope, even when there’s an absence of any supporting evidence, may help them press on, but it doesn’t change their fates. This moment is still their recognition scene. They can cling to small victories but they, and we, see the writing on the wall.
“Damn These Vampires” and “Birth of Serpents” are songs of corruption, the bite of a vampire or snake paving the way for a life of darkness, while “Estate Sale Sign” basks in the rubble of a failed union — beginnings and endings, alpha and omega. These three songs start the record with a hot-blooded charge, belying the crushing fates they present and displaying the Mountain Goats as full-on rock band, not Darnielle with two backing players.
From there, the bottom drops out in the shadows of songs like “Age of Kings” and “High Hawk Season.” Things get pretty bleak, and sometimes downright horrifying — see the mask-wearing, cognac-guzzling, pedophilic fat cats of “The Autopsy Garland” — as the resistance of those first churning songs yields to something more haunting. “Age of Kings” is a rare moment of faint light, though its lovers’ tale happens in a time long gone. All around it on the record, eagles train their sights on fish, scorpions swirl in the sand, rich men destroy all they touch, people betray one another.
There’s still a wild-eyed vitality to all these songs, though, so that even if these people have lost everything, they also know they’ve got nothing left to lose. The other side of the raw nerve of “Estate Sale Sign,” where aviator shades and stock film photos take on desperate imporatance, is that now the sellers have to start over. “Sourdoire Valley Song” takes us all the way back to man’s beginning, and the hunter-gatherer tale is haunting and beautiful, focusing on the Olduvai Gorge, an archeological site in eastern Africa known also as the “Cradle of Mankind.” He moves us away from our roots (“The grass grows up to cover up the fire pit and the forge”), but towards a life that sounds all right. A few close friends, a happy enough string of days, a time where we’re not clawing and scraping to survive moment to moment.
Darnielle’s usual knack for detail and word play is surgical here, as usual, but All Eternals Deck is notable for its wide sonic palate. The dramatic swing of strings over “Age of Kings,” the triumphant pop-country vibe (yup, and it kills) of “Never Quite Free,” the haunting choir on “High Hawk Season” — each of these are bold new steps for the band, big, risky sounds that represent the dire edge and hefty consequence of Darnielle’s words. The shifts in tone and tempo are masterful here, as is Darnielle’s phrasing and melodies, all subtly tighter than those that came before.
The album closes with “Liza Forever Minelli,” where the narrator lays his head next to Minelli’s star embedded in the concrete and repeats, “Never get away, never get away, never ever never gonna get away from this place.” It sounds like another doomed fate, another crushed soul tethered to the earth. But Darnielle’s tone is wistful, his narrator’s gaze drifting up to the sky, as if maybe he doesn’t want to get away. As if maybe this is where he should be, like Minelli — a success born out of plenty of her own tragedy — is as good a patron saint as any. It’s here, in this hopeful resignation, that All Eternals Deck ends, with one final symbol. Like all the others, though, its meaning is clouded. Maybe all this darkness isn’t so crushing, maybe losing it all can mean starting again, maybe seeing the cards before you isn’t a death sentence.
Or maybe this is just the respite, before the next troubling sign comes along.