Meticulously detailed yet poetically cryptic songs crammed full of emphatic imperatives, lists of objects, place names, photographic and cinematic imagery, ambiguously metaphorical melodrama, and elliptically sketched characters doomed to lives of regret, despair, terror or worse... yep, it's another Mountain Goats album. The fourteenth, depending how you count, though the first on Merge Records, an indie stalwart which has lately been building up an impressive roster of indie artists. John Darnielle is such a distinctive and prolific songwriter that it's easy to feel like he's repeating himself, and, sure, listeners who are comfortable with the amount of Mountain Goats already on their shelves probably needn't bother making space for what is essentially more of the same. But the man's also tremendously consistent; he's never offered up a less-than-intriguing set of tunes, and the 13 cuts on All Eternals Deck can stand alongside his finest: another baker's dozen of richly realized vignettes, some more narratively lucid than others, but none without at least a handful of wry, expressive, elegant, or otherwise worthy lines. There's no readily discernible theme or concept this time out, apart from a general (and hardly new) tendency toward darkness and dread, with occasional reference to the occult: songs mentioning vampires and ghosts; a title alluding to an apocryphal, and possibly invented, tarot deck. The album this most resembles is 2008's Heretic Pride, which was a similar grab bag lyrically, as well as, to some extent, musically. Sticking with the increasingly poised and polished full-band sound of the last several Mountain Goats releases -- plenty of piano, several lovely string arrangements, and fine work throughout from Darnielle's bandmates Peter Hughes (bass) and Jon Wurster (drums) -- much of All Eternals Deck sounds warm and relaxed, even lush. Outliers (and standouts) include the guardedly optimistic "Never Quite Free," with its breezy pedal steel, the spectral "High Hawk Season," which enlists a trio of male choristers who come across perhaps more like affably drowsy barbershop ghosts than the "spirit throngs" of the lyrics, and a couple of bona fide rockers: "Prowl Great Cain" (an account of unconscionable remorse which may or may not be about its biblical namesake), and especially the ripping "Estate Sale Sign," which surveys the detritus of a disastrously failed relationship (with distinct shades of Darnielle's old "Alpha Couple") in the nearest we get to an anthem on the level of "This Year" or "No Children." Nothing here's likely to attract new converts quite the way those tunes did, but this is still a very easy Mountain Goats album to like and to recommend, whether it's your first or fourteenth.
AllMusic Review by K. Ross Hoffman