THE MOUNTAIN GOATS – Heretic Pride (2008)

The Mountain Goats - Heretic PrideHeretic Pride is John Darnielle’s best album in since 2002’s All Hail West Texas, and when your musical output is as prolific as his, that’s really saying something (hell, it’s so prolific that I can’t say “best album in six years”, because Tallahassee also came out in 2002). A lot of people have taken issue with Darnielle’s music since he’s set aside the “me and my guitar against the world” aesthetic, but it’s really worked for him. Albums like We Shall All Be Healed and The Sunset Tree can stand up against the likes of Sweden. The precise production on those albums is, after all, only a veneer that Darnielle’s talent as a songwriter bursts almost too easily through. When Get Lonely came out in 2006, I didn’t know that he had it in him to make an album that was so fragile. Albums like that come naturally to the Sam Beam’s of the world, but Darnielle pulled a fast one on everybody, adding a new chapter to his canon after fifteen years of releasing music.

The same haunting frailty of Get Lonely carries over to a few songs on Heretic Pride, most notably San Bernardino, a song made of the swelling of lush viola and jittery, soft pizzicato strings. It perfectly captures the strength of a young love finding its place in the world, and of a new life entering into it. So Desperate is another such song, a curious throwback to the John Darnielle of old, the man who shouted about love and Colt .45’s in Going To Georgia. It’s just as bare as his earlier work (the crystal-clear production notwithstanding), but he no longer sounds like he’s about to explode in the name of love. As the chorus indicates, he’s conflicted (“I felt so desperate/in your arms”), but the understatement here ironically makes the conflict even simpler than the kind he expressed back in his lo-fi days.

Get Lonely might have exclusively focused on the more melancholy side of Darnielle’s oeuvre, but Heretic Pride is more diverse in the places that it reaches into. In The Craters On The Moon proceeds ominously, being pushed forward in its final moments by a crescendoing snare drum. Other songs, like the opener Sax Rohmer #1 and Lovecraft In Brooklyn actually slip out of the folk-rock realm, smuggled out under electric (!) guitars and studio trickery (multi-layered vocals). Of the two, Lovecraft In Brooklyn is inarguably more of a rock song, but Sax Rohmer #1 is the better song of the two. More than that, though, it’s one hell of an album opener. Darnielle hasn’t kicked off an album this well since The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton, which lead us into All Hail West Texas.

And speaking of death metal (or black metal, in this case), Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident is, despite the misleading title, one of the strongest songs on the album. It conveys a sense of loneliness better than any songs on Get Lonely (with the possible exception of Woke Up New). The simple chorus (“weightless/formless/blameless/nameles”) features The Bright Mountain Choir, who add another voice to the fleeting encounter that occurs in the song.

I’ve listened to Heretic Pride several times now, and one of the things I’ve come to notice about the album is how many of the songs on it begin with a similar rhythm (it’s heard at the beginning of Sax Rohmer #1, Autoclave, In The Craters of the Moon and How To Embrace A Swamp Creature, among others), but how all of these songs go off in a different direction, despite their shared openings. In a way, that’s really what’s best about Heretic Price: the songs, all of them great, all head off to different destinations. This isn’t the first album by The Mountain Goats to progress like this (2005’s The Sunset Tree progressed in much the same manner), but it’s definitely the best.

HD RATING: 9.5/10

NOTE: The Press Kit for this album is a mini comic book. Check it out, if you’re interested.


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