As with any Mountain Goats release, Heretic Pride makes you want to listen as closely as possible, unraveling the threads, seeing how things tie into an overall narrative. There’s nothing as obviously autobiographical or time-lined as The Sunset Tree material, but fragments of the scenery pop up across the 13 tracks, creating echoes or resonances if you’re using your official Mountain Goats magnifying glass. For instance, lots of water — whether the ocean (sailors, harbors), streaked with blood (“Craters On The Moon”), the waiting place in “New Zion,” or the sweat on some girl in a bathroom (right, the water of the toilet, too).
But also monsters and outsiders — whether dragged from a house and through the streets and into a trench and burned (the title track), or something with a “body like a sea lion, head just like a horse” (“Tianchi Monster”), the out-of-water-experience of “How To Embrace A Swamp Creature,” or the monsters in H.P. Lovecraft’s books and life (“Lovecraft In Brooklyn”). Then there’s the black metal: “Heretic Pride” is part of a line in “Black Deluge Night,” a song by Norwegian blackened thrash band Aura Noir: “We enshrine this glorious black deluge night / Their pulse, in fear, is high / We arise, then flee back through the Gates of Hell / As tyrants, we escape from sight / Bereft of air, the Earth trembles wide / Cracks all mountains high / Soaring demons now swarm the skies / In awe and heretic pride.” That’s Aura Noir, not Darnielle. If you’re familiar with the work of the Swedish satanic black metal band Marduk then “Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident” will make more sense. (Hell, if we saw a girl in a Marduk t-shirt we’d definitely write a song about her.)
Darnielle’s so great at details. He knows just when to place Bartles & Jaymes in a tune. Or hot caramel sticking to teeth. Or a 1967 colt .45. When we recently posted the excellent album opener “Sax Rohmer #1,” folks talked about Darnielle’s prowess as a lyricist in the comments — you’re not shitting us, the dude’s superb, and has made us teary and giddy over the years. He does that here/there: For instance, wait until the sentenced-to-death character in the title track feels jasmine on his tongue. Gorgeous. Or in “and then the water saw its course again, the way that waters will” in “Tianchi Lake,” especially when you’ve been charting the precipitation so much. But then, metaphors like “my heart is an Autoclave” don’t feel as sharp. And as for the aforementioned “Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident,” we know Darnielle has a soft spot for metal, Sweden, and girls in solitary moments of breakdown … and this is a gorgeous set piece. (We would’ve given him extra points if he made it 5:12 long).
There aren’t that many missteps. “Craters On The Moon” is kinda boring. “New Zion” has some nice keys and drums, but we find ourselves skipping past it once it hits the second movement and chorus. Regardless, this isn’t phoned-in as we’ve heard some say. He’s ambitious with his subject matter, even when he flops. He tackles an invented cult (the aforementioned stinker “New Zion”), ’70s reggae star Prince Far I who was murdered in his house on September 15 1983 (“Sept 15 1983,” of course), sleeping with someone you’ve broken up with (the dry, brittle, funny, effective “How To Embrace A Swamp Creature”). And, wow, another of our favorites is the distorted, bow-screeching, pontificating “Lovecraft In Brooklyn” (water, here, the water of the East River homesick H.P. must’ve looked out upon while he was hating living in Red Hook), and its Marcus Allen t-shirt and punchline when he enters the pawnshop. Or the windshield fog and radio static of “So Desperate”: “Had my hand in your hair, trying to keep my cool, ’til it became too much to bear.” JD’s always best at first person, even if he isn’t the person.
A number of songs are accented with various sounds (listen to all those weird chiming then chalky background noises in the poppy “Autoclave”). As mentioned previously, he’s not alone on here: Peter Hughes handles bass, Franklin Bruno piano. Cellist Erik Frieldander did all the arrangements/playing on the lovely “San Bernadino” (a young couple having a kid in the bathtub in a hotel … “I checked us into our motel / And filled the bathtub / And you got in the warm warm water / i pulled pedals form my pocket / I loved you so much just then”). Superchunk’s Jon Wurster does drums. The saintly Annie Clark rips electric guitar on “Sax Rohmer #1″ and sings some backup vocals. And Bright Mountain Choir vets Rachel Ware Zooi and Sarah Arslanian also sing (excellently on Marduk, actually). Finally, Scott Solter and John Vanderslice produced and added percussion and synthesizer, respectively.
So it has that bigger sound we don’t always love, that maybe isn’t always the most flattering for what Darnielle does, but there’s more than enough to like here. It’s not a class, and not as moving as The Sunset Tree, but for those of you who were left cold (or depressed) by Get Lonely might want to come back and listen awhile. Shit’s got heart, but of a different sort.
The very ominous, metal cover art:
Heretic Pride is out 2/19 on 4AD.