I personally like my Mountain Goats to be filled with anger, bile, hurt and any other negative emotion you can think of, partly because John Darnielle portrays these emotions so well. He is a documentarian of the hurt human heart. He does it better than anybody else. On the brilliant and autobiographical Sunset Tree these emotions were available in vast abundance, and it was good. Unlike that album Heretic Pride is a loose collection of different emotions, with some songs bordering on contentment. Not to worry -- there are negative emotions aplenty -- but I suspect that John might actually be happy now. Unlike some of his compatriots, when John became cheery his music did not suffer.
Let me say that I miss most of the literary refrences in John’s songs. I understand his songs on a far more base level. I feel them vs. understand them. That being said, the first song is called “Sax Rohmer #1” which (thanks to Google and Wikipedia) I found out was the dude who created the character Dr. Fu Manchu. The song itself describes a film noir-like scene set in some questionable port in the Far East. “I am coming home to you, if it is the last thing that I do,” is what John sings with great conviction.
"San Bernardino” is a song about a birth of a son in a motel in an idyllic town in California. There is not hint of irony; it is genuinely sweet, and the plucked and strummed strings are beautiful. “Heretic Pride” is a rather cheerful song about being dragged through the streets by a mob before one is to be killed. “I will be so proud when the reckoning arrives.” His use of incongruous sensory details in this song, such as the scent of flowers on the wind, is what makes this song great.
"Autoclave” is the hit of the disc. I literally listened to this song 20 times in a row on a particularly bad day while driving alone down Route 202 in Delaware. “As my last chance to feel human beings to vaporize, maybe it is the heat in here, maybe it is the pressure, you ought to head for the exits the sooner the better.” As the chorus would come around I would sing along with almost as much force as John sings live, “I am this great unstable mass of blood and foam, and no one in her right mind would make her home my home; my heart’s an autoclave.” By the 20th time around I was completely cured. John’s songs are magic like that.
"In the Craters on the Moon” is a brilliantly depressive song with the sage advice, “If the strain proves too much, give up right away. If the light hurts your eyes, stay in your room all day.” There is impending doom throughout this song about the “Declining Years of a Long War” -- an apt description of where we find America now, and it is not good. “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” is a claustrophobic exploration of an imagined (?) post-apocalyptic Brooklyn. The slashing strings and machine gun percussion make one feel the walls are closing in. "Tianchi Lake” is a very pleasant song about a sea monster. It offers a break from all the impending doom. It is like a perfectly timed cool breeze on an oppressively hot day.
This album is not perfect and there are some flaws -- slight, but still there. The production of the album is a bit over the top. This may be my own bias, but I always thought John sounded best singing into a boom box. All the high fidelity takes away some of the rawness and edge to John’s music; a prime example of this is “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature.” The saccharine sweet female backup singers is like adding way too much sugar to a fine cup of organic fair trade coffee. The sweetness ruins the complexity and darkness of the original. The same annoying backup singers show up on “Marduk T-shirt Men’s Room Incident.” It is actually a great song, but the backup singers rob the song of all its power.
The album finishes strongly with an ode to cheesy horror movies of the 1980s, “Michael Myers Resplendent.” John manages to make something as vacuous as an actor getting ready for his scene in a questionable B movie seem important, even transcendent.
Overall, the strengths of this album far outweigh any of its minor flaws. I think a less crisp recording technique would allow the beauty and horror of John’s songs to really shine through. After all these years John still has the ability to cut one to one’s core and leave one utterly devastated. That is a good thing. (4AD) (Dan Cohoon)