On 2006’s Get Lonely, The Mountain Goats‘ John Darnielle scrutinised the emotions and sensations of breaking up in such minute detail and with such unfailing accuracy, that anyone who has ever been dumped must think that Darnielle was living inside their head at the time noting their every feeling.
The eclecticism of Heretic Pride, a collection of songs about racist pulp authors of the early 1900s, cults, Prince Far I, and lake monsters, is far removed from its predecessor’s single-mindedness but Darnielle’s lyrical flair brings these thirteen, bizarre, funny, and moving stories to life with the same vital colour.
Sax Rohmer 1, named after the detective writer who created Fu Manchu, immediately sets the pace several notches up from Get Lonely. Fast and brooding, the song captures the dark intensity of Rohmer’s schlock writing, with lines like “I am coming home with my own blood in my mouth”, creating a sinister, brutal atmosphere, backed up by the frantic acoustic guitars.
This opening track sets the tempo for the first half of the album. The subsequent tale of a couple having a baby in a motel room, San Bernadino, is much more uplifting and moving than it sounds like it could be. This touching road-movie plot depicts the moving tale of a desperate couple as vividly as any short story could in under three-and-half minutes.
Darnielle’s talents extend beyond telling a story, on Autoclave, he niftily distills the feeling that it is not in his nature to love “No emotion that’s worth having can call my heart its home”, but without over analysis or wallowing as he might have used on Get Lonely, the matter-of-fact statements seem almost liberating.
Appropriately following the track Lovecraft In Brooklyn, inspired by pulp horror writer HP Lovecraft, Tianchi Lake breaks the tension of the album. It’s a slow burning tale of a lake-monster in a China, and while the subject may seem flippant, the floating piano and lazy guitars make for a beautiful touching song.
Heretic Pride is a far fleshier number than previous releases, with percussion on almost very track, greater use of pianos, synthesisers, strings, and backing vocals. The arrangements build the songs, ensuring that all the elements work to allow the stories, tableaux, and artistry of Darnielle’s lyrics to shine through.
Darnielle’s frames of reference come from all over the place, and a track inspired by Prince Far I, Sept 15, 1983 (the date of the reggae star’s death), incorporates reggae in to his classic American alternative songwriter style. Perhaps if anything though, this eclecticism is Heretic Pride’s one failing. Whereas Get Lonely relentlessly deconstructed solitude, this new release hops from one subject and style to the next, and while it is a collection of great songs, they don’t always fit together.
But any quibble about Heretic Pride is minor. Often hailed as the greatest lyricist of his generation, Darnielle couldn’t really do any more to prove that this is the case. Heretic pride is what would happen if Jack Kerouac and Ray Bradbury had written a musical together. Disjointed maybe, obtuse certainly, but listening to this album is continuously rewarding, new images, new storylines, and new moments of disbelief at Darnielle’s lyricism on every listen.