The Mountain Goats Heretic Pride

[4AD; 2008]

Styles: indie-folk short fiction
Others: John Vanderslice, Extra Glenns, Jeffrey Lewis

I feel pretty much the same way about John Darnielle that I feel about Woody Allen — that is, I enjoy just about anything either of them do (except Cassandra’s Dream). You may call some of their work indulgent, and I will generally be able to see what you’re saying and watch or listen happily regardless. But when either of these two luminaries really succeeds, it’s like Christmas and my birthday and an unlimited supply of Pop Rocks and winning a Pulitzer rolled into one.

Don’t get me wrong: unlike latter-day Woody Allen, The Mountain Goats hit much more than they miss. And while I appreciated 2006’s Get Lonely, even really loved some of the songs, it was a much more sedate affair than I expected from the man who gave us “No Children.” Instead of sublimating hopelessness and despair into something fierce and penetrating, it felt like Darnielle had finally succumbed and wasn’t fighting back. His lyrics were as precise and descriptive as ever, and the instrumentals continued their steady evolution from those fabled days of boom box-recording, but nothing got stuck in my head and injected itself into my daily life the way earlier Mountain Goats songs had. I know that “This Year” means something far different to Darnielle than it means to me, but it helped me endure one of the most frustrating and difficult years of my life. The characters on We Shall All Be Healed, from Dennis Brown whose lung collapsed to the narrator of “Palmcorder Yajna” who “dreamt of a house haunted by all you tweakers with your hands out” remain uncannily familiar.

It is this narrative power, bolstered by stubborn, insistent liveliness in the face of major and minor tragedy, that makes John Darnielle so compelling as a songwriter. The vitality was missing from Get Lonely, but it makes a triumphant return on Heretic Pride. Darnielle is perhaps the best lyricist writing now, and the fictional material that comprised his early albums is every bit as effective as the autobiographical stuff that pervaded The Sunset Tree and Get Lonely. What he has, which is so rare in contemporary authors, to say nothing of musicians, is an unlimited store of imagination and empathy. His characters linger long after the song has ended because he has fleshed them out in three minutes, through a concise series of dense images and apt metaphors.

The personalities that populate Darnielle’s songs might be more diverse than ever on Heretic Pride. Everyone from fringe literary figures like Sax Rohmer, who is most famous for writing the Fu Manchu novels, and H.P. Lovecraft to Michael Myers (the fictional murderer, not the mediocre comedian) and the late reggae singer Prince Far I makes an appearance. The cast of thousands is rounded out by a multitude of equally believable imaginary characters. True to its name, Get Lonely felt isolated. While the world of Heretic Pride certainly isn’t a lighthearted place, it is at least well-populated. The possibility of human interaction has returned, bringing with it snatches of hope.

This expansiveness may have something to do with the diverse array of places where Darnielle wrote these songs — at three edges of the country, in Durham, San Francisco, and Fairbanks, and abroad in Stockholm. It may also be a reflection of the many collaborators enlisted to help construct the album. Veteran bandmates, including Peter Hughes on bass, Franklin Bruno on piano, and John Wurster, are back. The massively talented Erik Friedlander plays cello, Annie Clark of St. Vincent contributes backing vocals and guitar, and members of the Bright Mountain Choir do what choir members do best. The best news of all may be that John Vanderslice and Scott Solter once again share production duties. With this sort of talent bolstering Darnielle’s ever-evolving songwriting prowess, it all adds up to The Mountain Goats’ most musically sophisticated endeavor to date. In fact, the music is finally beginning to hold its own with the lyrics.

Almost every individual song is worthy of mention, but in the interest of finishing this review before the next Mountain Goats album is released, I’ll try to limit myself. Darnielle is no stranger to anxiety, and Heretic Pride has its fair share of paranoiac moments, including the apocalyptic “Craters on the Moon” and “Heretic Pride,” which he calls a “persecution fantasy.” “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” alludes to the apparently quite racist sci-fi/fantasy writer’s unhappy stay in Red Hook, where he was so afraid of his immigrant neighbors that he practically became a shut-in and wrote some of the scariest stories of his career. The song is fast-paced and guitar-driven, with Darnielle singing breathlessly, as though he’s running from someone with a gun. He shows his talent for subtly coloring his lyrics with the voice of the frightened narrator, in lines like, “Afraid of my own shadow/ Like, genuinely afraid.”

But if The Mountain Goats are about fear, they’re also about love in all of its dysfunctional forms. “San Bernadino,” which benefits from Erik Friedlander’s beautiful arrangements, is an uncharacteristically optimistic song. It tells the tale of a young couple that checks into a motel room, where the girl gives birth to a baby in the bathtub. Rather than painting a tragic picture, Darnielle sings in the voice of the boy, who finds he is even deeper in love after the experience. “We were safe inside, and our new son cried,” he sings. “Autoclave” draws inspiration from an article Darnielle read about an organism that can survive in the machine used for sterilizing surgical equipment. A song so poppy it belies its profoundly depressing content, the autoclave becomes the narrator’s heart, and he confesses, “No one in her right mind/ Would make my home her home.”

“Tianchi Lake” is both the most musically and lyrically sophisticated track on Heretic Pride. The delicate, glassy piano reminds me of what sunlight might sound like playing across the water, if that did make a sound. Darnielle’s description is vivid, even poetic, but also mysterious: “Censers packed with sandalwood send smoke into the room/ Children in the sand outside on their hands and knees/ Sketching pictures all day long of stranger things than these.”

The most beautiful song on the album is “Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident.” A deeply moving ballad that Darnielle claims “jumped up out of nowhere one day,” it certainly plays like a dream, and the voices of the Bright Mountain singers, Rachel Ware Zooi and Sarah Arslanian, help to lend an ethereal quality. To give a plot summary for the guitar-and-string epic feels cheap, so I’ll allow the lyrics to say it better than I can: “Face hidden from my view/ I let myself imagine she was you/ Only weightless, formless, blameless, nameless.”

You might have noticed how long this review is. Well, I just can’t get myself to stop talking about the album. I’ll wrap it up, but not without saying in no uncertain terms that The Mountain Goats — by which I of course mean John Darnielle — are at the height of their powers. Let’s hope, like Woody Allen, they have a good 20 more years of freshness left before they start to spoil.

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