Thursday, January 11, 2018

The Mountain Goats: Heretic Pride (2008)



The official line on Heretic Pride is that it's the only Mountain Goats record since John Darnielle started recording in living breathing studios in the early 2000s that doesn't have an overarching theme. That, of course, won't stop any of those of us who hang on Darnielle's every word to try and find one, and maybe you can sense some recurring ideas here and there; personally, I hear a lot of moments of unblinking purpose, dedication, self-assurance, confidence peeking through truly dire situations -- the couple deeply in love despite having a live birth in squalor in "San Bernardino," the martyr thrown to the wolves in "Heretic Pride," the spy-novel determination to return to a passionately loved one in "Sax Rohmer #1," even the conflicted misanthropes of "Autoclave" and "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" -- but that isn't a lasso that fits all of this material snugly. Extrapolating from The Sunset Tree and Get Lonely, maybe the real story here is that Darnielle wanted to return to "rocking," to whatever extent he does that (actually, he does it quite a bit here, or rather they do), and to a full-color panorama of human toil and triumph. Maybe that's where his head was; maybe some of the aforementioned pride is a result of his renewed comfort in his own skin as a performer, yelping and hollering and awkwardly entering falsetto with what sounds remarkably like professional control even when he's telling his most harrowing tales. Or maybe it's all just a grab bag.

Either way, one thing this outstanding record -- which, for your information, was originally titled The Vision as It Appeared to the Serpent -- does solidify at last, after a long incremental evolution, is the existence of the Mountain Goats as a complete, collaborative, fully functioning band, with Darnielle accompanied consistently by Peter Hughes and the ubiquitous Jon Wurster, more sporadically by string arranger Erik Friedlander, producers and multi-instrumentalists John Vanderslice and Scott Solter, and a couple of ghosts: Frank Bruno, co-chair of the Extra (G)Len(n)s, and ex-Mountain Goat Rachel Ware, whose voice lilted across many of Darnielle's early cassettes. Little surprise that the record offers an even fuller sound than Tallahassee and The Sunset Tree, points the way forward to the even more polished (if less theatrical) The Life of the World to Come, and leaves the band open to the usual accusations of becoming all too complacent and slick. And yet if you're attuned to the Mountain Goats' sensibilities then Heretic Pride is as dramatic a record as they've recorded, and taking some of the burden of providing this drama off Darnielle himself only results in richer performances from both him and his crew.

Of all the Mountain Goats' albums on 4AD and Merge, Heretic Pride feels most -- in lyrical terms -- like a John Darnielle 1990s cassette tape: it references Sax Rohmer, H.P. Lovecraft and John Carpenter; contains one song about a mythical monster and another that invokes one in its title; waxes rhapsodic about life in a religious cult; and eulogizes a murdered reggae singer, Prince Far I. All the while, though, the differences are obvious; "New Zion" is a lower-key song of a sort impossible on a boom box, and there's space for us to hear Darnielle's increasingly fearless voice being overwhelmed with feeling in the lovely chorus. "Tianchi Lake" is the kind of perfectly modulated ballad at which he is a master, its delicacy and color as sensitive as absurdly beautiful lyrics about "sketcing pictures all day long of stranger things than these," all in the midst of celebrating a creature that lives in a Chinese lake. The carefully constructed, elaborate arrangement of the ingeniously titled "How to Embrace a Swamp Creature" is almost a punk rock-style rebuke of every once-signature element of Darnielle's aesthetic, and it's thrilling in retrospect to know how much further afield he was destined to go; but meanwhile the past is always present, with Rachel Ware and Sarah Arslanian singing away in the background as if it's The Hound Chronicles.

Inevitably, when we talk about the Mountain Goats "really" becoming the Mountain Goats rather than Darnielle's primary project and vehicle, we refer to the poetic and brash likes of "Sax Rohmer #1" and "Heretic Pride," different kinds of triumphs and grandiose gestures, full and lively and enjoyably bloody, the former with electric guitar offered by Annie Clark from St. Vincent. The songs are recorded similarly by Vanderslice and Solter, placed very close to one another in the first half of the record, and both build to cathartic choruses about, well, coming home: yearning for life and/or embracing death. But in Darnielle's words and affect they are wholly separate ideas that couldn't be more different, and those finer points of distinction are what make this band so rewarding and absorbing a thing to explore -- an element running assuredly through everything they've released under their name, and shown here as only enhanced by having the participation of a medium-sized group of players. "Autoclave" is slower, lower-register but still unexpectedly powerful, and you can still almost hear some version of it crackling from a single speaker, but you're finally glad it isn't. Darnielle even plays one of his traditional riffs on an electric guitar on "Lovecraft in Brooklyn," and the band hits some sort of utopian union with his private tastes when it borrows the dramatics of metal on "In the Craters of the Moon," then even more surprisingly hurls itself into an exhilarating string interlude.

The title song refers -- in Darnielle's own terminology from interviews -- to martyrs being the most "alive" of all people, if only in the brief moments ahead of their violent final breaths, but no character in these songs ever seems to get a chance to relax; the constant declarative "I am" statements are as often little decoys for intense insecurity as they are assertions of identity. "Autoclave" is ostensibly a song for those who voluntarily or involuntary must always push others away but it could be speaking for anyone's loneliness and anxiety. Darnielle emphatically denies "In the Craters of the Moon" as a political song, but can any evocation of life during wartime be anything else, and must we be near the trenches to feel its violence? Can the vomiting force of the deeply alienated protagonist of "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" stand in as easily for any of us careening confused through day-to-day life as for a guy who loathes every living thing he sees?

There's never any real way to get around the fact that the star attraction on every Mountain Goats album is Darnielle's lyrics, and no non-clumsy way to cite two of the most elegant and beautifully bare lyrics in his catalog without quoting large chunks of them in full. "Marduk T-Shirt Men's Room Incident" was taken by some writers and fans as a song about a rapist's encounter with his victim, but this is a simplistic read of a tragic, admirably vague story about an awkard, mostly silent encounter with a sad specter of a human on a bad night in a public restroom. It's a brief, vivid portrait of compassion giving way to patronizing sympathy giving way to dread and resentment. The words suggest Leonard Cohen ("Chelsea Hotel") and so does the song, Ware and Arslanian serving as Darnielle's own Jennifer Warnes times two.

Stray syllables were gurgling
From her throat one at a time
Face hidden from my view
I let myself imagine she was you
Only weightless, formless, blameless, nameless

And when I washed my hands
I ran the water hotter than I could stand
Half rising to a crouch
Sinking back down to the floor
When you’re walking keep your head low
Try to leave no traces when you go
Stay weightless, formless, blameless, nameless

There would be no home for a song like "Marduk" on one of Darnielle's concept records, unless it was one that was generally so bleak and fearsome it might become a difficult experience to return to. Instead it sticks out on this album like a particularly disturbing ghost story. This is the most tentative and despairing of the personal connections captured at length on the record, beyond the fantasies and memories. On "So Desperate," about an increasingly frantic adulterous affair, and "How to Embrace a Swamp Creature," about not quite being able to cut ties with an ex, Darnielle speaks more directly than at almost any other point about love and sex on the moral fringes; these are human stories, tragedies really, that are also vaguely celebratory in a strange way, particularly "Swamp Creature," so free of the kind of judgment and censure that anyone else's song about an ill-advised moment of weakness in a former loved one's arms could probably ever be. If that song isn't a sufficient indicator of Darnielle's touching romanticism and extremely hard-won optimism, "San Bernardino" -- one of the most beautiful and delicate songs he has ever recorded, comprised strictly of his voice and Friedlander -- is the record's great miracle, the moment on which a mutual adoration despite everything washes all else away. Darnielle himself seems overcome, and you can understand it; until the very last verse, he doesn't err even a bit in capturing this image:

I checked us into our motel and filled the bathtub
And you got in the warm, warm water
I pulled petals from my pocket
I loved you so much just then

And it was hard but you were brave
You are splendid
And we will never be alone in this world
No matter what they say
We're gonna be okay.

He was never less edited, never less sparse, never more free of himself, but never more himself in the purest sense. The lyric is impeccably judged and frankly does not need the last two lines ("We were safe inside / and our new son cried, 'San Bernardino welcomes you'"), but perfection would never be the goal of this band or this songwriter, and somehow coming about stirring, effortless truth and palpable reality like that in these verses somewhat spontaneously, thrown in with so much besides, is as impressive as a tape full of acoustic guitar vamping that achieves transcendence in some basement somewhere. Heretic Pride is about how the Mountain Goats will always be the Mountain Goats, could really never be anything else, and the fact that the world they can touch by being that is infinite.

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