The Mountain Goats' Heretic Pride (4AD) maintains the pop varnish of the band's last three releases, but eschews the more autobiographical leanings for a return to the exuberant storytelling of yore, resulting in a triumphant/anti-triumphant anthemic testament to a songwriter at the top of his form.
Prolific John Darnielle, the main force behind the Mountain Goats, is justly known for crafting excruciatingly lo-fi stories about far-flung phenomenon including best ever death metal band in Denton, Texas, and a first-person account of robbing a convenience store. In 2004, Darnielle traded lo-fi for a lush orchestral pop veneer with the help of John Vanderslice as producer, and the stories began a drift toward more straightforward autobiographical terrain. These two qualities peaked in 2005's The Sunset Tree, a reflection on his abusive and alcoholic stepfather after his death, and continued with Get Lonely.
Lo-fi vs. hi-fi, autobiography vs. fiction, triumph vs. despair--on Heretic Pride Darnielle ignores the dichotomy, blurs the lines and reminds us all that pleasure is intrinsically tied to pain.
Title track "Heretic Pride" is a prime example. Melodic, upbeat and driven, the music is undeniably uplifting. Yet the narrative offers something darker: a first-person account of being pulled from home and dragged out through the streets toward a town square to be ridiculed and burned. Recounting rocks thrown at him, Darnielle also sings of breathing honeysuckle and tasting jasmine on his tongue, belting out for the chorus in a throat-clenched style that hasn't changed from his bedroom recording days, "and I feel so proud to be alive, and I feel so proud when the reckoning arrives."
Opener "Sax Rohmer #1" and closer "Michael Myers Resplendent" each serve as anthems whose choruses speak in opposites. For the intro track, a tale about a pulp novelist, Darnielle resolutely blares, "I am coming home to you with my own blood in my mouth / I am coming home to you if it's the last thing that I do." The syncopated percussion and driving guitar help to drive the song forward in a triumphal arc. For the closer, about the slasher character from the Halloween movies, he matter-of-factly sings, "when the house goes up in flames, no one emerges triumphantly from it..." Here sustained keys and mellow strings, punctured by a bulleted percussion to introduce the chorus, serve as the foundation for an understated yet forceful anti-triumph closing.
These more intense moments are balanced with calm, lullaby-ish tracks like "San Bernadino," with its lilting and pluckly swell of strings, and "Tianchi Lake," a strummy, slow-paced tune accented by echo-y keys.
Reality or fiction, Darnielle continues to craft the most intelligent songs, brimming with intensity. Whether singing of cult literary figure H.P. Lovecraft or his own broken heart, the stories each speak of the same themes. In Heretic Pride there is a horror in all the beauty and for every defeat there is a victory. • Katy Henriksen
photo: Mark van S.