Head Mountain Goat John Darnielle pours his heart into his records like few other songwriters. The Sunset Tree, his venerable project’s twelfth official full-length album from 2005, was a devastating reflection on growing up with his abusive stepfather. Then, in 2006, the Mountain Goats released Get Lonely, a post-breakup album so emotionally raw that Darnielle told Pitchfork Media reviewer Tom Breihan that Breihan’s girlfriend would have to leave him in order for him to fully understand it.
Heretic Pride, though just as literate and at times gut-wrenching, doesn’t dig to quite the despairing depths of its predecessors. If Get Lonely was a chronicle of Darnielle’s struggles during, say, the two or three weeks immediately following his breakup, then Heretic Pride finds him after a year or so has passed, healing and ready to look outside of himself. His clear, nasal tenor soars on “Sax Rohmer #1.” The chorus, “And I am coming home to you / with my own blood in my mouth / . / if it’s the last thing that I do,” sung over marching snare drums and bright, major-key guitar, gives chills. There’s a wounded sort of triumph in it.
That major-key brightness repeats throughout Heretic Pride. “San Bernardino” is a sweet, toned-down meditation on a trip with a beloved. It benefits immeasurably from cellist Erik Friedlander’s beautiful arrangement, spotlighting pristine plucked strings and reminiscent of John Paul Jones’ arrangements for R.E.M.’s Automatic for the People. The title track is easily the most upbeat song ever written about being burned at the stake. Somehow, though, the main character’s pride is infectious – and you’re almost happy for him.
The simple fact is that every track on Heretic Pride deserves analysis. John Darnielle’s songwriting is stunning; he is able to shift from grandiosity to grit in a line. Most striking is his empathy – the majority of these songs are deft character studies, often of real-life people. Take “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” a hard-rocking song with strings like creaking gates that tells about alienation and paranoia from the perspective of a famed horror writer. Despite Darnielle’s usual eloquence, simple lines such as “Woke up afraid of my own shadow / Like, genuinely afraid” establish a claustrophobic, intense feel.
“Sept 15 1983” tells the story of Prince Far I, a murdered reggae singer. Backed by a throbbing reggae-style bass line, the song paints a picture of the murder scene with both sensitivity and sad, stark realism. “Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident” is a musically gorgeous snapshot of a breakdown at a German disco. It features backing vocals by Rachel Ware Zooi and Sarah Arslanian, members of the Bright Mountain Choir, who often sang with the Mountain Goats before 1996.
A number of images appear throughout the album, particularly those of heat and fire. When, on “Heretic Pride,” the doomed protagonist celebrates that “Transfiguration’s gonna come for me at last / and I will burn hotter than the sun,” you can see why: The theme of renewal, painful or otherwise, is constant. Biblical imagery is everywhere as well, as on “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature,” where Darnielle laments that he must “Crawl starving on my belly / licking up the dry dust.” “Swamp Creature” is also one of at least two tracks (along with “San Bernardino”) to refer to flaming swords guarding Eden. Darnielle’s trying to reach something, but it’s hard to tell what. Paradise?
Thankfully, the music is very nearly as interesting as the lyrics – though not quite. Most of the record is crisp folk rock, a far cry from the low-fi Mountain Goats recordings of the act’s early days. But, as on their past few higher fidelity releases, Heretic Pride is masterfully composed, moving from spare to lush like a slightly older, worldlier Sufjan Stevens. The album is almost flawlessly paced, with swelling strings and acoustic guitar ebbing and flowing without a trace of smarminess.
Once again, the Mountain Goats have proven their status as one of the most consistent projects in indie rock. John Darnielle has the right to be proud.
The Mountain Goats
Rating:4 1/2 out of 5 stars