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The Mountain Goats - Hex of Infinite Binding EP Music Album Reviews

John Darnielle confronts death once more, this time through a series of mortals, spirits, and superheroes.

The Mountain Goats have long employed vivid characters, both real and fictionalized, as conduits for complicated ideas. In the past decade, the band’s lead singer and songwriter, John Darnielle, used an aging goth to tell a story about mortality and a professional wrestler to discuss the brutality of middle age. Then in 2017, he released an EP entitled Marsh Witch Visions all about Ozzy Osbourne. Now the North Carolina-based group is back at it with a new set of mortals, spirits, and superheroes tackling a range of issues on the surprise EP Hex of Infinite Binding.

There’s Dr. Ted Sallis, a cult Marvel character who tragically morphs into a woeful swamp creature named Man-Thing, and Percy Grainger, an avant-garde Australian composer with a penchant for transforming traditional British folk songs into symphonies. These are the strange influences camping out under the covers of “Song for Ted Sallis,” the opening track of Hex of Infinite Binding. Unlike the bulk of the Mountain Goats’ recent work, the four tracks here—all of which were written and recorded at different times and places over the course of the year—aren’t united by a single concept. Instead, themes like death, depression, and existential crises drop by only to reappear later, propelled along by the breathy woodwinds section of multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas.

Inspired by Grainger’s masterpiece “Lincolnshire Posy,” the soft buzz of the woodwinds on “Song for Ted Sallis” and “Almost Every Door” lift both pieces into meditative dimensions. On the former, the gentle, padded sounds of the bass clarinet transform depressive lyrics like “Wherever my former self went/It was an accident” into spiritual reassurances. Better to surrender to the circumstances of your existence, the tender melody suggests, then to rage against them. The soul of Dr. Ted Sallis may now be lost somewhere inside a swamp monster, but he isn’t gone forever. We can choose to believe, as Darnielle does, that one day Sallis will “be found in the vortex shortly before sundown.”

As will Judy Garland. She is the main character in “Hospital Reaction Shot,” a pleasant tune inspired by a photograph of Garland’s final husband, Mickey Deans, alerting the press of the actress’ death. “Let the tube lights buzz overhead/Tell the papers that you’re dead,” Darnielle solemnly sings. It’s a sad scene, but the delicate guitar-based lullaby unfurling behind the vocals brings comfort to the tragic situation, as does an uplifting string arrangement orchestrated by Chris Stamey and executed deftly by Aubrey Keisel on viola and violin and Leah Gibson on cello. Darnielle’s light touch soothes mourners and suggests, once again, that death doesn’t have to be a destructive force; Judy Garland and Ted Sallis are just energy, and therefore can never be destroyed.

But they can be tested. We all can, and sometimes life, as Darnielle has documented so brilliantly in the past, is sad as hell. A depression sets in on the last track of Hex of Infinite Being, “Tucson Fog,” and it carries a return to Darnielle’s earlier stripped-down, pleading recordings from the All Hail West Texas era. In this case, the acoustic call to arms, rendered even more urgent by a taut violin performance from Keisel, unleashes then defeats the monster inside Darnielle’s mind: “The fog takes shape/Like a golem with a vengeful eye/Limbs like rippling swans’ necks/At least a hundred stories high.” Darnielle has battled this beast before, so channeling Dr. Sallis who once declared, “Whatever you fear is shadow mist!,” he frantically strums his way towards accepting that this too shall pass. Eventually, the fog will lift and reveal that “all worlds are dream and sleep,” and those we fear are missing will live on endlessly as our muses and fixations. In the case of the Mountain Goats, death is just another one of life’s plot twists.

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