At the center of the Mountain Goats is John Darnielle — singer, songwriter, and composer of more than four hundred inspired and poetically allusive songs. Over the years, his music expanded from lonely and violent acoustics to a full-on band, but he has consistently nurtured a shadowed optimism, even through the darkest narratives (see 2005’s Sunset Tree, an autobiagrophical account of the abuse he suffered as a child). Heretic Pride lifts those shadows — it’s the most optimistic Mountain Goats record yet. It’s uplifting and soulful, genuine and sophisticated — full of tender moments enhanced by remarkably pretty melodies and arrangements.
“Sax Rohmer #1,” inspired by the spy novelist and Fu Manchu creator, is the perfect opener. A country-strewn charmer with euphoric chord progressions that build into big splashes, Darnielle memorably blurts out the protagonist’s decree: “I am coming home to you / If it’s the last thing that I do.” In “So Desperate,” a love song about people involved with one another when they probably shouldn’t be, Darnielle squeals: “I felt so desperate in your eyes.” There’s an undeniable shame buried in the cries, and the line is one of the most powerful on the album — sung with shrill yet tender vulnerability.
The gentle “San Bernardino” is the story of a young unmarried couple giving birth in a cheap motel off the 10 Freeway out toward the high desert. Darnielle wrote this song and gave it to Eric Friedlander, who arranged it into the gently strung, sweeping piece that it is. Other collaborators on the album include Peter Hughes on bass, John Wurster on drums, Franklin Bruno on piano, Annie Clark (St. Vincent), and members of the Bright Mountain Choir. Scott Solter and John Vanderslice produced it.
Written in a variety of places, including Fairbanks, Stockholm, Seattle, San Francisco, and Durham, Heretic Pride is a collection of thirteen stories, each distinct. From surgical instruments and bacteria in “Autoclave,” to sex with an ex in “How to Embrace A Swamp Creature,” everything seems to fit just right. At times, Darnielle’s voice is jaunty or edgy. At others it’s hushed or pierced. He yelps to the likes of Conor Oberst or Colin Meloy; he gently swoons like the quiet desperation of Bonny "Prince" Billy or the strangeness of Sufjan Stevens; and at times his short, breathed whines and erks make me think of Andy Kaufman’s alter ego, Tony Clifton.
Though the Mountain Goats deserted their lo-fi aesthetic several albums ago, crafting a more grandiose and professional sound over the years, the most captivating aspect is still Darnielle’s emotionally genuine and colorful writing — easily amongst the genre’s best. Of course, if it hadn’t been so provocative from beginning, no one might have bothered to listen to all those boom-box recorded acoustics, much less Heretic Pride, the combined effort of an illustrious sixteen-plus-year career.