Three weeks ago, someone asked me what I liked about The Mountain Goats, the nearly two-decades strong project of songwriter John Darnielle, an Indiana-born English major and hospital nurse who lived in Illinois, California, Texas and Iowa before settling in Durham in 2003. Some have said his voice—nasal and with minimal inflection—sounds like nails on a chalkboard, while others have criticized his unsophisticated arrangements—which he's sometimes worn like a badge of honor—as a sign of an incomplete songwriter.
Heretic Pride, the 14th full-length from The Mountain Goats, isn't the band's best record by a Bethesda mile. But, perhaps more than any other, it is uniquely capable of articulating what Darnielle does so well for the uninitiated: His voice has never flashed so much range, and his band—an all-star cast featuring Jon Wurster, Peter Hughes, Scott Solter, John Vanderslice and St. Vincent's Annie Clark—has never offered such vivid and varied interpretations. We get two hard-edged rock songs (the pair of "Craters on the Moon" and "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" is the album's ferocious mid-section); a triptych of gentle (loosely speaking!) love songs ("San Bernadino," "So Desperate," "Marduk T-Shirt Men's Room Incident"); and two songs with meaty, reggae basslines ("New Zion," "Sept. 15, 1983"). If you've ever needed a musical inlet to The Mountain Goats, Heretic Pride may offer it.
More importantly, though, is how well and consistently Darnielle's detail-rich but purposely elliptical songwriting works atop Heretic Pride's multifarious approaches: Darnielle's always been interested in hard-line outsiders who struggle for scraps in a world of suits and straights. As the record's title (borrowed from black metal band Aura Noir) suggests, Darnielle emphasizes the hope of the individual above all else here—the outcast proud to be around. These characters hold heretic pride like a secret creed, doing what they have to do to stay alive or sane or—at worst—to exist with some comfort. Even though the title track's narrator knows he's about to die, he sings, "I feel so proud to be alive." A water monster in China happily swims under cover of night, finding his own recreation, shying from the beautiful people who could see him during the day. Darnielle sees hope in a flimsy female figure in a European disco, a girl in a black metal T-shirt slumped against a sink as she tries to regain her composure. "Stay weightless, formless, blameless, nameless" he sings so sweetly, backed by a two-voice choir. Darnielle's worried the word will break her, that they'll say she won't be OK, as is the case with the new parents in "San Bernadino," who are "holding on to our last hope."
After all, "Every moment leads towards its own sad end. ... All roads lead toward the same blocked intersection," as Darnielle sings on opener "Sax Rohmer #1," casting a net of despair his characters spend the rest of the album working to resist. The Brooklynite who's paranoid like H.P. Lovecraft finds comfort in a switchblade, if nowhere else. The power must be in the person, or in the destitute "San Bernadino" couple clinging to one other, delivering a child in a cheap highway motel. The rest of the world's expectations—of voice, of guitar playing, of accepted faith, of beauty, of stability—can be goddamned.
No upcoming local shows for The Mountain Goats, but Heretic Pride is out now on 4AD. John Darnielle reads from his 33 1/3 book series contribution on Black Sabbath's Master of Reality May 14 at the Regulator Bookshop in Durham.