To begin with a reference that avowed metalhead and horror movie fan John Darnielle should appreciate, the music video for Iron Maiden’s 1990 single “Bring Your Daughter… to the Slaughter” alternates concert footage of the band performing the song with clips from the 1960 Christopher Lee horror film The City of the Dead. These ominous black and white scenes of hooded men in a stone dungeon preparing a hysterical young blonde woman for what we are to assume is some sort of ritual sacrifice are, even (or perhaps especially) with a growling metal anthem in place of the film’s original soundtrack, hopelessly stagy and melodramatic. Any believable authenticity they may have had as late as 1990 (if that was ever the intention of the band in utilizing them, never mind the original filmmakers) is further strained by the video’s inclusion of some outdoor scenes of a young man scrambling, presumably, to the heroine’s rescue, thereby establishing the whole thing as part of a larger drama.
And yet, jarred from the larger context of the movie itself, there is something distinctly haunting and even deeply unsavory about these fragments of film. Recontextualized here, they function as an object lesson on how even the most sinister of cinematic narratives (and never having seen the complete film itself, The City of the Dead may have very well been the Martyrs of its time for all I know) gain an essential degree of reassuring comfort simply by virtue of belonging to something as complete as a story. If what is unknown can be far scarier than what is known, what is only partially known might be even more terrifying still.
For all of its clever mashing-up, however, the video for “Bring Your Daughter… to the Slaughter” still cannot help but add up to something less than the sum of its parts, its failure, oddly enough, being not one of but rather due to context. Heavy metal, particularly the extroverted sort that Iron Maiden deals in, is already swimming in horror imagery from its lyrics on down to its graphic design. Grafting some horror film clips, even ones as spookily suggestive as these, onto a live video of an otherwise standard-issue, if thematically appropriate, metal song amounts to an exercise in redundancy.
John Darnielle, for years the lone permanent member of the Mountain Goats, which has only recently been solidified with an actual band lineup, knows how to apply horror imagery to music where it is far less expected and thus far more startling and effective for its sudden presence. “Damn These Vampires”, the opening track on All Eternals Deck, is only his most blatant recent example. Beginning with “Brave young cowboys of the near north side / Mount those bridge rails / Ride all night” before introducing, a verse later, “Sapphire Trans-Am / High beams in vain / Drive wild broncos / down the plain”, the setting is already richly cinematic before the vampires of the chorus arrive (“Crawl til dawn / on my hands and knees / Goddamn these vampires / for what they’ve done to me” and later, more vividly, “Goddamn these bite marks / deep in my arteries”). Astutely genre-conscious in a way that lyric-based music, particularly the straightforward brand of indie folk rock that is his current mode typically eschews in favor of poetic “realism”, he’s giving us a western and a road movie that makes a sharp detour into a horror flick.
Elsewhere, All Eternals Deck is subtler in its use of scare tactics, more Victorian haunted house than grindhouse exploitation. “Outer Scorpion Squadron” advises “If you really want to conjure up a ghost / Cultivate a space for the things that hurt you most”, that classic ghost story mode of the supernatural as an outward expression of an inner turmoil scarred by the buried secrets of the past. “The Autopsy Garland” sounds like a Poe title if there ever was one, but although the Garland of the title actually refers to Judy (really only apparent from “Look west from London toward the Emerald City / Remember Minnesota”), the song’s chilling refrain of “You don’t wanna see these guys without their masks on” offers an especially grisly suggestion. This spooky vibe is not strictly limited to the lyrics, either. In what may be the single most adventurous sonic twist that John Darnielle has ever attempted on record, his voice, rarely ever accompanied elsewhere, is backed on “High Hawk Season”, by what sounds like a barbershop quartet, albeit one staffed by the revived zombies of ancient pirates. The effect is unsettling, to say the least.
Even without hints of the supernatural, though, All Eternals Deck feels distinctly haunted. Darnielle has referred to it as “a surviving record”, a description that draws clear parallels with the most harrowing of his previous works. Most notably, perhaps, it evokes the chronicle of his childhood abuse at the hands of his stepfather on The Sunset Tree (2005), but it could just as easily extend the addiction and recovery memoir of We Shall All Be Healed (2004) and the break-up narratives of Tallahassee (2002) and Get Lonely (2006). All Eternals Deck is filled with lyrics that could plausibly be tethered to any one of these pasts, fixated as it is on dual-edged sword of memory, the tension between the need to preserve even our most fraught experiences and the desire heal through letting go. “Permanent bruises on our knees / Never forget what it felt like to live in rooms like these”, from the bright jangle of “Birth of Serpents”, finds strength in remembering, while “Sometimes a great wave of forgetfulness rises up and blesses me / And other times the sickness howls and I despair of any remedy”, on the urgent “Prowl Great Cain” curses the same past’s refusal to ever just evaporate.
All of this offers further proof of how John Darnielle is, to those who have been paying attention for especially this last decade of his career, one of our most vivid and evocative lyrical storytellers, as well as one of the most idiosyncratic and humane. It has become standard, by now, to assess his albums as the fully conceptual pieces that they most frequently are, which common critical knowledge dictates as a parallel growth alongside the sonic maturity that began with Tallahassee’s switch to higher fidelity production from his earlier, bargain basement boombox recordings. With the bold exception of “High Hawk Season”, most of All Eternals Deck (which has seen much of its pre-release hype centered around four of its tracks being produced by death metal icon Erik Rutan, although you would be hard pressed to identify which four simply by hearing the album) retains the smooth acoustic-based consistency of every post-Tallahassee Mountain Goats album.
Still, Darnielle seems to be pushing himself here more so than any album since The Sunset Tree, the album after which his gentle approach has been gradually threatening, it must be said, to grow a little too complacent. Several songs here add string sections, never more pronounced than on the near-tango sweep of “Age of Kings”, while “For Charles Bronson” (which, along with “The Autopsy Garland” and closing track “Liza Forever Minnelli” comprise a kind of celebrity-based suite woven into the larger fabric of the album) allows a subtle synth hum to sneak in. Far less shy about its adventurousness is “Never Quite Free”, which breaks out into a full on country sigh unprecedented in the Mountain Goats canon.
Perhaps the most striking moment here, though, is not one that offers anything new to Darnielle’s still-expanding sonic palette, but rather one that reaches back to the past. “Estate Sign Sale”, while far removed from the murky hiss of the pre-Tallahassee Mountain Goats, is driven by the kind of hard and furious strum that was standard practice in the old days, Darnielle’s acoustic guitar played with frantic speed-punk violence and matched with a gnarled intensity he has essentially retired in his vocal delivery since the more confrontational moments on We Shall All Be Healed. The song itself is another ghost story of sorts, one about objects haunted by the memories that we invest in them, as a post-break-up couple inventories the belongings they once shared in preparation for selling off their old house. Here, though, there is something like hope to be found in the presence of some memories actually worth preserving. “I remember when their names were dear to you and me”, another irreparably scarred John Darnielle character harshly recalls, but for once not all of the phantoms of the past prove to be worthy of exorcism.