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LISTEN: "All Eternals Deck" (2011) by the Mountain Goats

Three, among new age people, necromancers, heretics and fanatics, is supposed to be a number with power. I don't believe in any of that, but it's fun to pretend that you do ... 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 [All Eternals Deck]'s about dark, netherworldly things and what it means to be obsessed with them.

- John Darnielle

One may well sigh when one realises that it is nevertheless given to a few to draw the most profound insights, without any real effort, from the maelstrom of their own feelings, while we others have to grope our way restlessly to such insights through agonizing insecurity.

- Freud

There is a whole literary genre, "psychological realism", for novels which focus on the details of their characters' minds. In them, self-narrative and (usually self-delusion) are more important than plot, truth, denouement: the "actual" events. Does anyone write psychological rock?

Well now yes. All Eternals Deck is just that, retaining the perfectly tuned Gothic aesthetic in which the the later psych novels wallowed. (Note: 'psychedelic' rock is the opposite of what I'm looking for - it's a candy-coloured flight from ordinary inner life.) So AED isn't just about how frickin cool tarot or black metal is, or how real ghosts are, or any of that: it's about the power of ideas over us. Also our perversity. (To be haunted is to not let a ghost go, and not as we usually say, the converse.)

"It's hard to tell gifts of the spirit from clever counterfeits."
- Darnielle's Cain

Talking of subjectivity like this - saying that things can be important even though untrue - has the character of magic. And IRL, there are always two sides to magic and supernaturalism - the Without (the conning magician or priest's knowledge of the trick) and Within (the mark's numinous awe). These songs are about within, with all the entailed nonsequiturs and vague fogs of feeling.

Each of AED's titles are three words long (i.e. one per bandmember), and there are thirteen! songs. I think each song's a different Goat: some reviewers noted that AED 'isn't a concept album' - but this is only true in the corrupted sense of "concept", where it means just "story album".

  1. What it is to be subjective. Never mind if it's true - is it believed? How does it feel? (The fancy term for this could be "literary existential phenomenology".) Most often this is manifested here as being subjected, being the one things happen to. The motif that gives it away is the mask/face string.

  2. What it is to be a living anachronism, AKA old. His characters are left behind by time ("Vampires", "Estate Sale"), youth , talent ("For Charles"), the Market ("Estate Sale"), the march of evolution ("Sourdoire"), and each other ("Age", "Prowl"). And apart from that, few of the songs keep to one period for imagery - there's medieval and primeval images thrown to Trans-Ams, Hollywood and Death Wish.

  3. What it is to survive. What keeps you going? Your past (Garland's Minnesota, the Olduvai Gorge), or the thought of escaping it (Bronson's childhood, Garland's later childhood)? Every other song has a line about waking or resisting sleep - insomnia a perverse kind of 'surviving'. Follow the light, wait for the light, o light.

Let's call Darnielle's characters "Goats". (Fans are apparently "Capricorns" which is nice.) Very often he sings first-person as them, not himself. And a lot of them have the dramatic arc of Hamlet: on the outside, no arc at all; but, from within, it's a churning, morbid parabola, often followed by terrible action. In the end they are benighted by themselves, by sharp memories here symbolised by serpents and scorpions. Darnielle's great asset is his self-awareness - cos if you're self-aware you can do all kinds of things which irony usually forbids, like the simplest rhyme schemes and soothing stock melodies, without being unbearable.

"The album is called ALL ETERNALS DECK, and if you have ever watched say a 70s occult-scare movie where one of the scenes involves a couple of people visiting a storefront fortune teller, getting their cards read, and then trying to feel super-hopeful about what they hear when what they’re visibly actually feeling is dread, then you have a pretty decent idea of what the album is all about."
- Darnielle

The liner notes tell a little story about the titular lost Depression-era tarot deck, and give us thirteen hazy tv-screen close-ups with ironic comments on supernaturalism for each song: their captions, taken from some ungoogleable How To Be A Psychic guide/ Goth sales catalogue, underscores the shuckster's side (Without) rather than the mark's side (Within) of occult games.


1. Damn these Vampires
(Liner text: "damn also their friends")
(Liner picture: Confusing - somebody singing or screaming)

Song of bad influences, being moved on or left behind. One good trail: an addict (arteries, life spiralling down, 'vampires' as dealers - or the substances - or the friends that enable the habit, begging, crawling), but I'm veering off from storytelling - some are best left as symbolist fogs.

Anyway: a wild life, genre-mashing: cowboys (the young, macho, self-dramatising) and vampires (the effect of that life. Burned-out cowboys after a couple years of this). The world changes without them (horses into trans-ams). One cowboy realises what is up. And doesn't recognise himself:
let those glass doors open wide,
And in their surface
See two young, savage things
Barely worth remembering."

And suddenly anger and regret: "for what they've done to me". Tension between this sense of singular injustice and the "we" he wants to "walk upright" with. Struggles to change. Dawn's his chance, though we know it might be the vampire's usual fate he's crawling towards. (Analogous though unlikely is the Arctics' usage of 'vamp'.)


2. Birth of Serpents
(Liner text: "past life regression is your best vacation value")
(Liner pic: Three white roses, nested and complex. See top ^.)

Song of painful memories, of what images really are (open doors). Photos are hindsight. Pathos in the device that puts the direction the past lies in as Down - it being a natural law for this Goat that he was always lower back then. We can't avoid a Biblical nod from the title - the implication being that developing the reel of film is to invite attack from painful memories, to uncover the "permanent bruises" - but there's a persistent hopefulness to it. As if looking back ("down") at the serpents from a high haven. It's safe to call this a properly autobiographical one, the locations in the lyrics being JD's hometowns to date.

Wonderful line: "See that young man who dwells inside his body like an uninvited guest."

AED is overproduced in lots of places. He isn't used to bellowing neither.


3. Estate Sale Sign
(Liner text: "roughly equivalent to the Tower in standard tarot - avoid")
(Liner pic: Extreme closeup of a large black bird landing, feet first)

Song of cultural destruction. Its extended metaphor is very metal: the couple as cult. And now the cult is selling up. ("The Crusades" were their honeymoon, I suppose.) The Goat's fury at the love lost is expressed in her listing the objectively valueless things that they had built their lives around, forgotten films and "trinkets". Also the incongruous chorus:

"And high above the water the eagle spots the fish
Every martyr in this jungle is gonna get his wish.
The jerky, thrashy energy it's delivered with helps suggest secret dark intentions (against the ex?), once the sale is through.


4. Age of Kings

("raps under table: 'who from future time dost summon, I slumbering in memory,' etc ad lib")
(Pic: a 2 of Hearts)

Song of idealising past love. Not rose- but gold-tinting. The scene is twice transformed: first, through the real effect of love on perception (making everything significant, everything exalted); but then also the vagaries of memory, smoothing edges and omitting negatives. Their relationship is a "lost age" to him, but, he thinks, attainable again ("sword sticks in the waiting stone still warm"). Blame is distributed between himself and the evil in the world's fog :

Reach down to the moment when I should've said something true
Shadows and their sources, now stealing away with you.

(Repeat of track 2's down=past, up=future metaphor.)


5. Autopsy Garland
("check for something behind floral arrangement")
(Pic: Top-left quarter of a girl's face, her hair all big. She's probably smiling.)

Song of corruption for no clear reason. Judy Garland reflects - does an "autopsy" - on her childhood. I don't know her story, and hadn't expected this crushing emotional portrait, "behind the floral arrangement" indeed! "Fat rich men love their twelve-year-olds": yikes. We see masks again, which I'm going to stretch for a reference to the adult actors: appearing as one thing on screen, but who "you don't wanna see" off camera if you're a kid surrounded by the excess and pressures of the top of the world. Song is also dominated by Wizard of Oz winks, as her life surely was.

"I consider all three of these figures [Bronson, Garland, Minelli] survivors in some way, and I’m very into survivors."
- JD


6. Beautiful Gas Mask
("a person known to you will make sudden contact")
(Pic: Fearsome skull-design gas-mask)

Song of wretches in love. They're stumbling, blinded by both fog *and* blindfolds! But they "jump" anyway: take each other, though hidden from each other. (As usual.) JD uses a wonderful rise/fall string of imagery - a subset of the sleep/wake string running throughout the album. Awful hope in the mantra:

"Never sleep, remember to breathe deep
Never sleep, remember to breathe.

The falling doesn't go so well: they lose each other, find themselves in toxic surroundings. What do BGM's two settings, post-apocalypse and medieval, share? : A sense of being subject to the world. The gas mask is not the usual symbol of terror and stricture (nor an identity-obscuring persona like the other masks) but an odd agent of salvation - possibly love itself. There's another saviour, but their uncertainty re: them is total:

Who will be there to catch us in his [hunting dog] jaws
When we arrive alive at last?

...Someone's coming to reward us, you wait and see!
(Or crush us both like fleas.)


7. High Hawk Season

("everything eventually takes place on film")
(Pic: A child swimming underwater, inverse-mirrored)

Song of solidarity. The images are scattered - vaguely biblical but also glorifying the idealism of youth. Friendly ghostly choir - one wonders what will happen to us at the end, when they stop singing with us. It can be read as a glorifying Within for the trashy pulp flick The Warriors ("Van Cordtland Park" gives it away).

"Who will rise, and who will sink?"

Alternatively: it can illustrate one idea of aesthetics: that things do not contain content; people contain content. As such, no one person determines a work's meaning. Each member of anything's audience sees a different work, because we attach unique meanings to it, if we're doing it right. ("It's hard to tell gifts of the spirit from clever counterfeits" - and not only hard, but futile to.)

This album was released in March; the Occupy movement kicked off in September. But from where we stand, HHS can be seen to resonate with Occupy New York; that is, a new reading has opened up: the song is now larger than it was then. HHS deals in idealism, a NY park, graffiti, throngs, and Rising. (Also "frightened sheep" though.)


8. Prowl Great Cain

("expiation candles available in bulk; our most popular candle")
(Pic: a foreshortened arm, wrist bound in something strange and obscure)

Song of what follows for a traitor. (Meaningless freedom.) This Goat names himself after the biblical Cain - having killed a brother, or one as close. His emotions are startling, ambivalent - "every now and then" he feels "guilty, but can't feel ashamed". Opening line serves to make Cain more repugnant to us (graverobber). He rationalises it as a military maneouvre ("I live to fight another day"). An Apocalypse Now reference gives us a sharper picture:

Kurtz: "I watched a snail crawl along the edge of a straight razor. That’s my dream. That’s my nightmare. Crawling, slithering, along the edge of a straight razor…and surviving."

Goat 'Cain': "Like a caterpillar crawling out along the surface of the blade."

i.e. Trying to excise the moral part of himself. PGC's unusual because it treats the difficult survival of the abuser. Song ends with him waiting to see if he can escape the guilt, "the sickness", and getting demented.


9. Sourdoire Valley Song

("in a former incarnation you struggled but knew great joy")
(Pic: Two skulls, mirrored)
Song of the old olden days, the birth of dignity. Namedrops the French site of the earliest known Neanderthal burial and the African site veering off from storytelling - some are best left in of the earliest humans. Darnielle reconstructs an inner life for protohumans and links them to us. Their voice ends up as modern middle-aged Americans ("keep to ourselves mostly"). The Goat Hominid sees his line is going to end: the 'grass grows up to cover up the fire-pit and the forge'. His quiet acceptance of this is stunning. He cites Olduvai, "half the world away" (two million years ago) in impossible reminiscence, but also as if affirming evolution's motion.

The reference to "the old man" is an erudite nod to the fossils of nursed disabled humans that heavily indicate their compassion. (That the newer fossil was named 'Elvis' by researchers is a wonderful semiotic avenue I refuse to take.)


10. Outer Scorpion Squadron
("most spirit guides instruct the novitiate to send any demonic spirit animals, trust the seeker")
(Pic: Two hands, held in the seance manner)

Song of inviting doom in. One of his more beautiful arrangements for one of his more grotesque stories. The first half seems to describe a suicide-by-cop-scorpion; "raking the sands", provoking the dark bits of her past, the 'scorpion squadron', into destroying her. But then:

"Ghosts of my childhood stay with me, if you will. Find a place where there's water, hold you under til you're still."

We then see that the Goat (Darnielle, or near enough to him) was really ambushing them, drowning them so he can get on.


11. For Charles Bronson

("the room filled suddenly with the sound of a passing train")
(Pic: Revolver with trigger fingered)

Song of pained macho aging ("Never let them see you're weak"). It's introduced by Darnielle injecting himself for two seconds before flicking into the Goat, Bronson. It's an odd device, putting as it does those two faces together. The only subsurface point I can offer is that the liner note puts Bronson's "lucky break" (late-career starring role) into poetic context - the noise of the train a fleeting opportunity to fire the revolver without giving yourself away.

"A terrible example of a person with a gigantic chip on his shoulder, but made great by it. (Like everyone in the history of the world!)"
- JD

(Was tempted to read this as a paean to the British psycho in the hole. Anyone know if he was named after the American?)


12. Never Quite Free

("turn over crossing card; pause")
(Pic: distorted carousel horse)

Song of bruised renewal.This isn't so terrible as a song, but it's terrible as a fact: the most positive song he's ever written is boring, neither tragic glory nor ironic inspiration. The drums are nauseating, too. (In the Life of the World to Come, where a number of Goats are dogmatically affirmative, it was their delusions that gave the songs literary legs.) He seems to flick between two 'Goats here - perhaps an abuse victim (Darnielle...) and the abuser. ("When you see me, you'll know")

"For those of us who are into horror, dread is a nice, sort of powerful feeling. It's not that you're afraid of something; you're riding that feeling. And that's what I think surviving stuff is about -- learning to ride stuff like waves instead of letting it crush you."
- JD


13: Liza Forever Minelli
("Re-scan everybody for disguises. Somebody's hiding something.")
(Pic: Palm tree, from nearby, if you were looking up)

Song of Hollywood at night: the isolation and imprisonment of fame.

There's a case for seeing the Goat here as Darnielle - he loves Judy Garland - this could be empathy with Minnelli, lying on the Boulevard pavement next to her or Garland's Walk of Fame tile, "your star next to my face". (Giving Ms Minnelli an inner life being a task no less daunting than his work on Homo heidelbergensis in track 9.)

Not that there's nothing to work with - in her shadow ("If you're gonna sit next to the dealer you get to bet blind"), with her misfortune ("The compasses I came into this world with never really worked so good"), and her predestination, showbiz ('never going to get away from this place').

But enough of that. "Anyone here mentions "Hotel California" dies before the first line clears his lips": think about the way we listen to him (or any band). We scream for one or two songs, shite hatchlings mindless with the need to be fed. This song - this map of this town I don't know dedicated to this person I don't respect who presumably went through a lot to gain the flat showbiz contentment that lies without - is not going to be screamed for.

Anyway, All Eternals Deck ends swaddled in memory looking ahead, to the sun.