Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Record Review: The Mountain Goats

The Mountain Goats
Heretic Pride
NQL Rating: Good

John Darnielle is no slouch when it comes to word play, so it should come as no surprise that the latest album from the Mountain Goats, Heretic Pride, is 45 minutes of metaphors, ambiguities, and triumph. During those 45 minutes those desperately seeking another “This Year” or “No Children” are going to come up empty handed but that is by no means a slight on what might be the most balanced and listenable album in the Mountain Goats’ catalog.

You won’t go five seconds into first track and single “Sax Rohmer #1” without instantaneously recognizing the marching tempo that implies Heretic Pride picks up right where the last few albums left off. That’s not to say you should expect another sometimes frustratingly quiet effort such as 2006’s Get Lonely. (For the record, I’m a big fan of that album and label it “sometimes frustrating” because that’s the feeling I had when I excitedly jumped headfirst into the album and expected my joy and anticipation to be immediately reciprocated. Instead, it took me a solid two months of listening to realize how much I actually liked that album. Perhaps I should review Heretic Pride again in a couple of months???) Nope, instead you’re thrown right into an upbeat song that has Darnielle singing “And I am coming home to you/with my own blood in my mouth” for the chorus. Don’t worry, it sounds much more encouraging than it reads. And that’s a good thing, too, because that song is followed by “San Bernardino”, a comforting arrangement of guitar plucking and strings. I’ve never been to this California city but Darnielle is so talented with his words when he sings of the “Eastern sun rising over the mountains / yellow and blood-red bits, like a kaleidoscope” I get a strong grasp in my head of the setting without having to google image the San Bernardino’s skyline. (Or maybe I’m just kidding myself and this is no more than a hopeful mirage after being slowly beat down by Chicago’s rope-a-dope winter.)

As I alluded to earlier, Heretic Pride doesn’t have any singles that will immediately smack you in the face (though there aren’t any tracks you’ll skip with any regularity either) but the title track comes the closest. Cut from the same cloth as “Sax Rohmer #1”, Darnielle tells a story of someone being dragged through the streets on the way to the city square (potential Biblical undertone?) for some sort of public lynching. Though only those with the keenest of ears will even pick up on this because “Heretic Pride” cloaks itself behind smiley piano and drums and Darnielle singing “And I feel so proud to be alive / And I feel so proud when the reckoning arrives” in what are the songs most decipherable and conspicuous lyrics. I wasn't expecting the welcome sense of pride and triumph this song gave me, which speaks even more to Darnielle's talent: His songs leave me confounded, unable to decide whether to feel happy or sad.

The next memorable track is stuck in the 8 slot. “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” begins with a noisy guitar riff and our protagonist remembering a blistering hot day in Brooklyn. Although no Radio Raheem, there is a guy in a Marcus Allen jersey who asks for a cigarette and he concedes his loneliness with the line, “Companionship is where you find it / So I take what I can get”. (I’m assuming this refers to a Marcus Allen Los Angeles Raiders’ jersey--the Oakland Raiders were in LA from 1982-1994 which consumed Allen’s entire Raider tenure—and not his Kansas City Chiefs’ jersey. For one, Darnielle spent a considerable portion of his life in California. Second, the idea of some hoodrat in Brooklyn hanging out in a Kansas City Chiefs’ jersey doesn’t give this song quite the sinister feel that I think Darnielle was going for.) Those that enjoy the Mountain Goats more seedy side will probably look at this song as a nice throwback to those yesteryears of All Hail West Texas. And speaking of throwbacks, my first instincts told me “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature” was a b-side from Get Lonely. He’s out of his element. He can’t breathe. He can’t remember his own name. Someone help him!

Right on cue, here comes the help in the form of “Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident” which bring the strings full circle from “San Bernardino”, and “Sept. 15, 1983”, a nice quiet folk song that again brags on Darnielle’s lyrical talent with the a chorus of “And if I forget Israel, let me forget my right hand.” I don’t know what this reference means and I don’t need to know (another Biblical reference, perhaps?)...ah yes, the subtle powers of lyrical ambiguity. (In a quest to find more of this song’s meaning I hit up Wikipedia. On September 15, 1983 Israeli premiere Menachem Begin resigned; Kansas City Royals’ pitcher Luke Hochevar,who is known more for numerous contract hold-outs instead of his prowess on the field, was born; and Prince Far I, reggae toaster and producer died. Hmmm…let’s go back to the drawing board.) The album ends with “Michael Myers Resplendent” which again brings back the strings and puts the finishing touches on an album that covers all the ranges of the Mountain Goats’ lyrical strengths of visual imagery and humor.

If this album has a flaw it’s that nothing jumped out and surprised me. There are no real mysteries outside of some precious spots of lyrical ambiguity. Past efforts from the band have always left me guessing, surprised, and sometimes needing a few months to digest (see: Get Lonely). Heretic Pride is filled with hardly a single or a filler. It’s solid but not great. Dependable, yet not boring. And perhaps that’s the mystery right there.


1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Check the lyrics to Sept 15th 1983 again, and go back to the Prince Far I wikipedia page. Your questions will be answered.

eXTReMe Tracker