By STEPHANIE BREIJO
With perfectly balanced production and more diversity than any of their first 15 albums, The Mountain Goats return triumphant to the up-tempo tunes of yore and John Darnielle’s signature storytelling with “Heretic Pride,” sporting sea monsters and horror film killers among the frontman’s new cast of narrators.
For a group that spent its first 11 years releasing lo-fi recordings, the typically two-man band rarely relied on full production, scarcely testing the waters from 2002 and on. Most tracks—and nearly their entire last album, 2006’s “Get Lonely”—only feature simple arrangements and acoustic guitar.
“Heretic Pride,” however, marks a return from “Get Lonely’s” droning and almost too-melancholy melodies to upbeat cries from an array of characters, and signifies the most polished release from the band yet.
But avid Darnielle fans need not fear the over-produced stigmas that studios usually threaten—in fact, the high production on this album sacrifices nothing from The Mountain Goats’ indie rep and unhindered emotion in their songs.
Each track is still a snapshot into the, er, lyrical lives both fictional and historical. The powerful drums, playful piano and versatile violins never overshadow Darnielle’s earnest acoustic moments.
Lastly, the stories are as potent as ever, spanning the anger and violence of writer H.P. Lovecraft’s xenophobia to the tender desperation of two lovers better separated than together.
True to Darnielle’s modest writing style, none of the album’s tracks focus on the musician himself. Instead, like Dylan and other great storytellers that came before him, the Mountain Goats frontman paints vivid pictures of births, murders and cults, transporting listeners to whimsical worlds aided by melodic belting and well-balanced instruments.
What sets this cast of characters apart, however, relies not on the emotional weight in lyrics—Darnielle’s collection of over 400 songs has proven that he’s sprinkled each tune with enough passion, jealousy and apathy to fuel day time television programming with his characters’ issues for an eternity.
It’s the lack of inhibitions. These narrators are not the self-conscious voices of “Get Lonely” or even “Tallahassee.” They cry out with passion to be recognized, sympathized with. Here, they don’t care who listens—they just need to be heard yelling, crying and crawling.
The exuberant “Sax Rohmer, Pt. 1” sets the energetic pace for the album, following the historical pulp novelist as he journeys to his wife through shadows and clogged intersections.
With a chorus like, “I am coming home to you / with my own blood in my mouth / I am coming home to you / if it’s the last thing that I do,” Darnielle’s lyrics prove as strong as the determined strumming that backs them.
The album’s clean production shines on “San Bernardino,” the tale of an unmarried couple about to give birth in a cheap California motel room. With sweeping violins and gingerly plucked string arrangements, the musicianship remains uncluttered for the amount of parts involved.
Not only does it add a tender feel to the album, it contrasts, like the album’s other heartfelt ballads, with the exultant up-tempos that comprise the majority of the album. Through this device, “Heretic Pride” gives the low points a more deliberate feel than previous works, typically all too laden with soft, emotional slow points.
“Heretic Pride” provides a high-belting, polished portal to The Mountain Goats’ work, easily accessible to the band’s blood-thirsty fans or curious first listeners alike.
Between the cries for well-deserved attention from each song’s narrator and well-proportioned doses of strings, crashing electric guitar and the soft strumming of Darnielle’s acoustic, The Mountain Goats’ newest belongs in the collections of all lovers of story and stimulation.