When John Darnielle signed to 4AD, many of his long-time fans went ahead and wrote his obituary. Having recorded his earlier (and his best, in my opinion) albums on an old boombox with a built-in condenser mic, many thought that his newfound budget would gloss over part of what was so glorious about those earlier creations. Although the hiss was gone, most fans probably didn't find themselves too frustrated with last years Tallahassee, another fairly solid creative entry in his output.
After reading early information about We Shall All Be Healed, I was hoping it would be the album that would find the group making more some more creative leaps and bounds into new territory. After all, it was to be the first to include actual percussion in the form of drums, as well as more filled-out instrumentation from a multitude of players. As an added bonus, the album is recorded by the ever-trusty John Vanderslice. With all of the above in mind, it's unfortunate that the album comes off so tepid, though. The slight cracks that shone on Tallahassee are more visible, and unless you're a newbie to Mountain Goats lore, there probably won't be a whole lot new for you here.
Lyrically, Darnielle still traverses the same territory as he has for the past several releases, and that's both a good and a bad thing. It's clear that he still has a penchant for writing clever passages about the lesser fortunate (whether it's his panhandle state oddities of the last albums or the numerous tweakers on this one), but if you've heard previous albums by the group, it feels sort of like treading water. Musically, the album stretches out with new instrumentation fairly nicely, but much of the album feels flat. "Linda Blair Was Born Innocent" is a pretty acoustic guitar and string track, but the only track that reaches the real strumming frenzy of old is the glorious "Home Again Garden Grove," one of the only tracks on the album that falls back to more of the original sound of the group, with slightly distorted vocals and string-damaging acoustic playing.
The tracks in which a real full group are playing drop down to such middle-ground that much of the life is sucked out of them. "Palmcorder Yajna" has enough urgency and interesting imagery to keep it rollicking nicely, but tracks like "Letter From Belgium" feel like fairly bland indie rock despite Darnielle's spoken-word delivery. In the end, the problem with the album isn't that it's poor, it's just that the group has done so much better than it before that it feels like sort of a letdown. There are definitely signs that the full-band format will work out for the group, but it needs to keep some more of the spontaneity that their earlier recordings flourished with. A good entry from the group, but not quite a great one.