Mountain Goats on top with Heretic pride

My favorite thing about John Darnielle, the one-man band behind the Mountain Goats, is that he has a knack for balancing the focused with the madcap. His lyrics are often poetic descriptions of human conditions, beautiful in their plaintive simplicity. However they are also sometimes manic, desperate, and fearful. But he is able to pull off these conflicting identities with a grace that can come only from the sincerity of a superb poet. Heretic Pride, Darnielle’s newest release, is a showcase of this versatility. It marks a departure from his previous two albums, The Sunset Tree and Get Lonely, which were concept albums about an abusive childhood and a crumbling relationship, respectively. While these albums were extremely effective at conveying their own particular mood and message, their cohesiveness could be limiting at times. Heretic Pride is different: it is scatterbrained, anxious, tranquil, and, above all, brilliant. The first track, “Sax Rohmer #1” begins with urgent guitar strumming that is somewhat thematic through the album. However, the song is unique in that it includes muted electric guitar parts to complement the acoustic strumming. The result is a tenseness that builds up to the album’s first showcase of Darnielle’s nasal shout. As he yells, “An agent crests the shadows and I head in her direction/All roads lead toward the same blocked intersection/ I am coming home to you/with my own blood in my mouth!” one knows that this is the start of a very special album. The instrumentation stays very strong throughout the first half of Heretic Pride. Usually, Darnielle’s voice and lyrics are the focus of the songs, but there is some variation in the structure here, and it is very effectively done. Especially strong is the third track, also titled “Heretic Pride.” The song opens with a drumbeat, quickly layered over by piano, neither of which is typical of a Mountain Goats song. Again, this is a good choice, and the song’s chorus about feeling “so proud when the reckoning arrives” becomes powerful and impossible for a listener to forget. Part of the appeal is that Darnielle sounds like a stubborn child in the song, exacerbating the tone of anxious rebellion. The fourth track, “Autoclave,” is the best lyrically on the album. The lines “Lend me your hand/ Let me look into your eyes/ as my last chance to be human begins to vaporize. . .I am this great unstable mass of blood and foam/ and no emotion that’s worth having/ could call my heart its home” begin a song that is more conventionally structured. Appropriately, it features fairly repetitive guitar strumming over a simple drumbeat. Darnielle’s voice sounds uncommonly vulnerable, bringing back memories of The Sunset Tree. The album’s second half falters slightly in that some of the songs just sound too similar to earlier tracks. However, none of them disappoint on their own. “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” is one of the heaviest songs I’ve ever heard from Darnielle, both musically and thematically. It is an obsessive, paranoid description of one man’s nightmare world, told through the gaps of offbeat drum banging and loud electric guitar. “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature” is also very touching, exposing an awkward and angsty protagonist. Finally, the album closes with “Michael Myers Resplendent,” one of the finest songs that the Mountain Goats have ever recorded. Darnielle’s voice is a soothing force over intense bass drums and background keyboards. The whole song has the feeling of a voice taming the instrumentation, trying to keep it under control. And he does so, gorgeously, ending what I can only imagine will be the best album of this year.