Heretic Pride, the latest from John Darnielle’s Mountain Goats, is a volatile menagerie of monsters. They’re not monsters in the sense that they’re dangerous — though some are — but more in the sense that they are isolated in a romanticized, almost mythic way. The narrators here are, in varying degrees, complicit in their downward spirals, sometimes even relishing them. That comes as little surprise when you see who our subjects are. We see slasher-flick killers, sea monsters, pulp crime novelists, even horror-geek-god H.P. Lovecraft. But through all the whooping, romantic paranoia, through all the self-imposed isolation and destruction, Darnielle and his characters reveal tiny cracks of hopeful light, and the beautiful minutia that can be found even in the darkest of caves.
At first listen, Heretic Pride is in stark contrast to Darnielle’s last offering. Get Lonely was a tense, threadbare record that mined a more contained and even comforting sort of sadness. Here, though, the narrators don’t care who hears. They want the world to know their plight, but the bubbling over of emotion here — something we see often in the Mountain Goats’ catalog — is well-tempered. Despite the spit and noise and wild stare of these songs, there’s a subtlety to the way the lyrics illuminate images. And there’s a variety to the tracks that give the album an astounding breadth.
More than anything, this is the most full-band release we’ve seen from the Mountain Goats. With now permanent drummer, and former Superchunker, Jon Wurster — well, he’s permanent enough to be in promo pics — Darnielle has found a potent weapon. Wurster’s hard-hit and intricate drumming is the perfect metronome to these cracked narratives. Coupled with the solid bass of Peter Hughes, these songs finally have the sturdy, dynamic foundation they need. These narrators are now tethered to something they can’t pull free from, and it ups the ante big time on these tracks. Full-on rockers like “Sax Rohmer #1” and the title track have a frenetic energy that makes it impossible to sit still. “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” uses a crunchy electric guitar in place of Darnielle’s signature acoustic, and lets Hughes shine as his funked-out and heavy bass line drives the song forward in all its claustrophobic glory.
These up-tempo numbers are so good, and so well-crafted, that when Darnielle strips things down — like he used to do most of the time — it seems like a more deliberate choice. To contrast with the bluster of, say, the narrator in “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” — “I went down to the pawn shop, to buy myself a switchblade”, Darnielle sings, horrified and triumphant — we get some gentler moments in songs like “So Desperate”. The aching need to go after what you know you can’t have, what you know you don’t need, is still there, but here its less on display. What ends up coming together, through all these different voices, are stages of isolation. We see celebration, destruction, depravity, paranoia… but we also see earnest sadness, the pain of loss. We see a part of the population that, whether they revel in it or reject, are just not cut to fit the world they exist in. So while the levels of emotion may seem over-amped at times here, the valleys that accompany those peaks not only ground them, but make for a more human record.
Sometimes, Darnielle uses the quiet to add tension to the song’s action. “Sept 15 1983” tells of the violent murder of reggae singer Prince Far I. But, while we get the gory details — the knives, the blood, even the smell of leftover food as paramedics rush in — the song itself is a pleasant, reggae-tinged breeze that poignantly shows the irony of a man so known for the heartfelt love in his music to meet such a violent end. It’s one of the quietest moments on the record, but it may be the most intensely heartbreaking.
There are also some small flourishes of production that bolster these already fantastic songs. “Michael Myers Resplendent” — yes, about the guy from Halloween — uses strings to stretch out and raise the tension to cinematic heights. The down-in-a-bunker apocalyptic “Craters on the Moon” fades and fuzzes in the middle, with Darnielle’s strident shout buried deep in the track, before the drums kick in and it sounds like the ceiling joists are busting and it’ll all come tumbling down. Like many moments on the record, it is a moment of mania. But where Heretic Pride succeeds is in variety. We never see the same mania twice, never repeat the same angle. The doom-thirsty group of survivors in “Craters on the Moon” wouldn’t consort with the distant lover in “Autoclave”, and vice-versa.
If Get Lonely was a confident artistic statement for Darnielle, where the frantic, excitable singer reels the emoting in to craft something quiet and devastatingly internal, then Heretic Pride is the other side of that confident coin. He turns up the volume, sings until the veins swell in his neck, indulges in his self-possessed and sometimes unlikable characters, and manages to make an album that sounds startling and vital. Darnielle has done a lot with very few ingredients over his prolific career, and Heretic Pride, for all its monsters and darkness, may be the best combination of his strengths to date.