John Darnielle has made a career of glorifying deplorable figures in song -- not that the idea is anything particularly new (where would Tom Waits be without his revolving cast of scumbag accomplices?), but the miscreants who inhabit his tales of shattered lives never really roamed the countryside, at least not as one identifiable being. From the infamous "alpha couple" onward they are composite figures, culled from Darnielle's travels through the underbelly of America. Having effectively killed off the alphas at the end of Tallahassee
, Darnielle was granted a completely blank lyrical slate for the first time in nearly a decade.
A strain of seemingly unrelated narratives stitched together by Darnielle's trembling voice and skeletally spectral acoustic guitar, We Shall all be Healed is less cohesive than many of its predecessors, but is gripping all the same; its scattered depictions of splintered lives are at once comforting and haunting, Southern gothic nightmares rife with archaic imagery, pastoral machinery and tragic endings.
In sharp contrast to The Mountain Goats' early boombox recordings, We Shall all be Healed is the work of a real band -- helmed, as always, by Darnielle, but featuring the talents of on-again/off-again collaborator Peter Hughes, Franklin Bruno, Christopher McGuire and producer John Vanderslice. The sweet vitriol of "Slow West Vultures" spools into "Palmcorder Yajna"'s muted graveyard furor, both augmented by bolt-upright cadences and splashes of bloodstained ivory. The claustrophobic splay of "The Young Thousands" wouldn't have been possible without Bruno's patient keyboard work, and Vanderslice's crystallized recording of the elegant, porcelain-kissed "Your Belgian Things" is truly magical. While nobody's going to dispute the brilliance of All Hail West Texas or Zopilote Machine, Darnielle's willingness to throw himself so completely into collaboration is what makes this effort such a triumph.
The consummate observer, Darnielle is a fascinatingly detached presence whose songwriting allows slight glimpses of his psyche through the actions of its lamentable cast of characters (Splendid fave Bill Foreman is the only other current singer/songwriter with a similar gift). There's simply no "I" in Darnielle's world, and even if that means writing a love lament to shipwrecked rats ("Cotton") or the death of virtue ("Linda Blair was Born Innocent") as opposed to, say, his wife, so be it. The closest the album comes to true confession is "Against Pollution", a harrowing tale of a thwarted robbery attempt in which Darnielle seemingly apologizes for all the unimaginable sins he's ever committed ("When I worked at the liquor store a guy with a shotgun came raging through the place / busted his way behind the counter / I shot him in the face").
Midway through "The Young Thousands", Darnielle spits, "There has to be diamonds in a place that stinks this much" -- and as with everything he's ever touched, there are indeed sparkling diamonds, both musical and lyrical, buried within the layers of We Shall all be Healed's festering humility.