The Mountain Goats' 'Heretic Pride' will renew your faith

By Peter Valelly

The paradox of reviewing music is that the thing you want most to write about – your favorite band – is the one you probably shouldn’t.There is the purely occupational danger of getting carried away, writing thousands of words in flowery prose. Yet there are more personal stakes. For me, reading and writing about music is important because it always accelerates the effect of the music in question – it reveals nuances, betrays failures and intensifies the sonic rushes, peaks and valleys.

But in reviewing your favorite band, there’s the terrible fear that you’ll somehow diminish their integrity. Worse yet, you may discover a weakness but ignore it in your writing, irresponsibly sweeping it behind a curtain of glorifying praise.

And finally, there is something moderately embarrassing for a music critic about even admitting that you have a favorite band. Doesn’t the sheer level of open-mindedness and omnivorousness demanded by today’s music climate kind of exclude that idea anyway?

But there is one band to which I am more attached than any other, and that is the Mountain Goats. Head Goat John Darnielle’s primary creative expertise lies in the foggiest corner of songwriting, the place where lyricism is welded to chords, melodies and rhythms, transforming the song into a literary form equal to but radically separate from that of the novel or the poem. This skill does not lend itself to description and criticism.

However, for the first time since 2002’s “All Hail West Texas,” the Mountain Goats have released an album that works on every level. “Heretic Pride,” out next Tuesday, is what Darnielle sounds like with all cylinders firing. He endows his intricate and esoteric songwriting experiments with an infectious sense of melody, and meanwhile he and his band mates have crafted a perfect sonic setting for each song, driven by particularly strong drumming. It’s enough to fully disable my rock-critic neurosis, and that’s saying something.

“Heretic Pride” begins with the storming, drum-driven “Sax Rohmer #1.” The song’s urgent and infectious hook is one of the most memorable in Mountain Goats history: “I am coming home to you/ with my own blood in my mouth.” The build-up in the verses relies on percussive, tightly coiled guitar strumming to augment the drums.

It’s the best song the band has churned out in years, and one of the keys to this song’s success (and the whole album’s) is the strength and expressiveness of Darnielle’s vocal performance.

Darnielle’s nasal screech has annoyed many of my less Goats-inclined friends, but when he harnesses to his lyrical and musical goals, it becomes one of the crucial ingredients to the Mountain Goats’ sound.

The album’s title track repeats this trend, with the verses escalating to an anthemic and ominous chorus which continues the emotionally dark aura triggered by “Sax Rohmer #1.” “Autoclave,” perhaps the album’s highlight, is a similarly dour song set to an unexpectedly bouncy backing track. “You oughta head for the exits/ the sooner the better,” Darnielle warns, before confessing, “I am this great unstable/ mass of blood and foam/ and no one in her right mind/ would make my home her home.” Continuing the theme of fraught and fateful romantic encounters, “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature” seems to describe the vertigo and anxiety of getting back in touch with an ex.

Even the less triumphant tracks have breathtaking moments. “Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident,” sinister and spare, begins with the show-stopping image of a woman, “Marduk t-shirt sticking to her skin/ refugee from a disco in old East Berlin.” The chorus of the otherwise unremarkable “New Zion” has a weight and drama unexpected amidst the song’s fluffy organ noodling. Finally, “In the Craters of the Moon” escalates to a taut, feverish rock’n’roll panic that brings its otherwise stale lyrics to vivid, frightening life.

The spectacular closer “Michael Myers Replendent” is the latest of many examples of how, with the same folk-rock meat-and-potatoes musical elements, the Mountain Goats can continually refine, revise and reshape their sound. With its triumphant martial beat, Darnielle’s dramatic yet reserved vocal performance, and appropriately cinematic couplets like, “The prom queen’s caught in the high beams/ and the strings keen, it’s a big scene,” this surreal retelling of the classic slasher flick “Halloween” concludes the LP perfectly.

The Mountain Goats have been one of the best and most ceaselessly productive bands on the indie scene for over a decade, and one of the greatest things about their career is how it dodges standard rock chronologies and narratives. They’ve never had a definitive prime, a marked slump, or a triumphant resurgence. Each album has the chance to be their best yet; “Heretic Pride” may have made good on that chance.