Lo-fi junkies will have to look elsewhere to get their tape hiss fix, because John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats make it very clear on their newest release, Heretic Pride, that they’re done with the loveable, lo-fi Mountain Goats of old. But don’t fret, Darnielle’s transcendent song writing and hurts-so-good nasally tremor are ever present in Heretic Pride, they’re just held in lovely contrast to lush arrangements of cello, electric guitar, and piano.
Turning focus from the dark, introspective Get Lonely, Darnielle returns with his uncanny ability to create vivid narratives about a whole variety of off-kilter characters. “Sax Rohmer #1” kicks off the album with thumping drums and peppy acoustic guitar accented with floating electric guitar arpegios. “Sax Rohmer #1” lyrically feels like the autobiographical Get Lonely, but the rich tapestry of sounds in the background hints this might be a different kind of album. As soon as “San Bernadino” starts, that fact becomes abundantly clear. A gorgeous stringed arrangement swells in the background while Darnielle gently croons about an unmarried couple giving birth in the bathtub of a roadside motel. The subject matter is depressing, but Darnielle and his cellist treat it with such tender care and irreverence that the misfortune turns into a proud moment between the father and mother.
The title track, “Heretic Pride,” is a first person account of being dragged through town and led to the grave by an angry mob. Piano, acoustic guitar, and strings dance all around the listener while the heretic proclaims “I feel so proud to be alive. I feel so proud when the reckoning arrives!” It’s a moment of pure exhilaration as death approaches, and just like in “San Bernadino,” Darnielle’s emphatic take on such tragic situation makes the song defiantly enjoyable.
Heretic Pride was released along with a “comic book press kit” written by Darnielle and illustrated by Jeffrey Lewis. In it, Darnielle briefly discusses his inspiration for each song along with comic book like illustrations. The next track, “Autoclave,” came about when Darnielle read an article about a new strain of bacteria that could survive an autoclave, a device used to sterilize surgical instruments that can kill pretty much anything.
“Naturally, this got me thinking about people whose hearts involuntarily pulverize any good feelings that come within a city block of them,” said Darnielle.
The song’s protagonist declares, “my heart’s an autoclave” with a bold, ashamed self-awareness of his own poisoned psyche. Darnielle’s ability to write emphatically about broken people shouldn’t surprise Mountain Goats fans anymore, but this is one of his best biographic efforts to date and is nicely complimented by a female voice and the slight touch of a few electric bleeps. Watch out Radiohead, the Mountain Goats are going electronica.
Cults, and loveless relationships nicely round out the subject matter of the middle of the album. “In the Craters On the Moon,” is one we’re just going to have to see live. The cello and thumbing bass drums keep the listener still with suspense as the song builds to an explosive crescendo that proves to be almost too much for Darnielle’s whiny tremor.
The suspenseful energy from “Craters” runs nicely into “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” a song inspired by American sci-fi icon and xenophobe, H.P. Lovecraft who lived in immigrant flooded Brooklyn. It’s a slightly more modern re-telling, featuring “a kid in a Marcus Allen jersey,” about how Lovecraft might have felt walking the streets everyday with a seething hatred and distrust of almost everyone around him. He starts to carry a switchblade, and if the screech in the violin’s strings is any indication, goes batshit.
“Tianchi Lake” provides a nice break from the psychological screw turners that precede it. It’s a pretty, slightly vintage song about a Chinese folk monster and the children who love it, told with simple guitar, light piano, and quiet voice.
“How to Embrace a Swamp Creature” is possibly the best Mountain Goats song title ever, which is saying something. It’s a story about an ex-lover showing up for whatever reason to an old flame’s place and trying to resist the unshakable urge to sleep with that person. Double points if you’ve been in this exact situation with the person who turned you on to the Mountain Goats in the first place….
“Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident,” proves to be maybe the only weak track. Darnielle’s story is about finding a dead or dying girl wearing a Marduk t-shirt slumped over in a bathroom, and while the slightly haunting, slightly sweet back-up vocals are a nice accent, the simple guitar riff doesn’t do the girl or the lyrics justice.
But, if “Marduk T-shirt” is a blemish, the next two songs are the make-up to cover it up. “Sept. 15 1983” is an elegant, tragic, reggae inspired vignette about the assassination of reggae musician, Prince Far I. Darnielle contemplates Far’s last moments, reflecting on his life, his assassins, and the afterlife that soothes his conscience like the grooving guitar and slow, plunking drums soothe the ear.
The album closes with “Michael Myers Resplendent,” a slow but energetic string stroked song inspired by Darnielle’s love of slasher films. He leaves it ambiguous as to whether the man putting on makeup and hurrying “while we’ve still got light,” is an actor playing a serial killer, or the actual killer. It’s classic Darnielle, telling a wholly enjoyable story about someone just not quite right.
Completing the transformation started with Tallahassee and The Sunset Trees, the Mountain Goats refreshingly new instrumentation combined with Darnielle’s tried and tested narrative lyrical style make Heretic Pride one of their best albums yet. The underground, basement recorded charm of Darnielle’s earlier work may be gone, but it’s replaced by some simply inspired new sounds and vocals that may not lend the listener as much indie cred, but paint fantastic musical images to go along with Darnielle’s always fantastic lyrical ones.
Buy this record.
Memorize this record.
Write a dissertation on this record.
But if you want tape hiss, throw on Nine Black Poppies.
Link for the comic book press kit: