Music

The Mountain Goats: All Eternals Deck

Jer Fairall

The ever-prolific and always compelling John Darnielle returns with another batch of songs haunted in ways both literal and metaphorical.


The Mountain Goats

All Eternals Deck

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2011-03-29
UK Release Date: 2011-04-04
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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.

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Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

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Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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