The Mountain Goats’ new album “Heretic Pride” sounds like a damn good idea. Another new release from the prolific neo-folk band — great! Rave reviews from sites like Pitchfork and other sources of your opinions — who could argue? Even the name “Heretic Pride” seems promising, as do track titles like “Michael Myers Resplendent” and “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature.” But the album, though it certainly has its moments, doesn’t quite manage to live up to the hype.
On the surface, the tracks themselves sound like good ideas: much more polished than one would expect. Produced by John Vanderslice as well as Scott Solter, who worked on The Mountain Goats’ “Get Lonely” in 2006, “Heretic Pride” is a far cry from the band’s defiantly lo-fi early days. The album opens with “Sax Roehmer #1,” a sweeping, Decemberists-like ballad on which singer John Darnielle’s nasal vocals soar over furious acoustic guitar chords. It’s a strong enough opening track, and it works … but almost too well. For a song that includes the lyrics “And I am coming home to you / With my own blood in my mouth,” there’s something inappropriately palatable about it.
The track that follows it, “San Bernadino,” is much more promising — in fact, it’s one of the highlights of the album. Scored with a pizzicato cello and sweetly smearing strings, it chronicles a couple whose son is born in a hotel bathtub.
But the rest of the album, though solid, fails to live up to the high expectations set by its production values and its reputation.
Darnielle prides himself on his lyrics, but his concepts on “Heretic Pride” are better than their realizations. “So Desperate” starts with a compelling description of a couple meeting “in our neutral meeting place, the Episcopalian churchyard,” but the chorus of “I felt so desperate in your arms” is trite and anti-climactic. There’s a strong sense that more could have come out of this song — maybe if John Darnielle’s English teachers had done a better job emphasizing “show, not tell” — but it doesn’t quite deliver.
“Craters on the Moon” delivers the most power on the album, with raucous vocals, that hard-nosed folk-rock style of guitar and gripping dark strings. In terms of conveying desperation, this song does its listeners a lot better than “I felt so desperate,” evoking that emotion without spelling it out. Yet the album’s final great success is “Tianchi Lake,” a quiet track with wonderfully idyllic lyrics about a monster thought to live in a lake between China and North Korea. This song’s tranquility makes it the polar opposite of “Craters on the Moon,” but The Mountain Goats pull it off at least as well, wistfully describing the monster floating in the water, “staring into space.”
Darnielle can clearly create masterful songs on both ends of the emotional spectrum, which makes it especially unfortunate that the other tracks on this album are too restrained, lacking the right touch of quirkiness to bring “Heretic Pride” to a higher level.
To its credit, the album becomes more appealing with each subsequent listen. But with nothing truly spectacular, there’s only so much more likeable “Heretic Pride” is capable of getting; it seems unlikely that by the 53rd listen one will come to the epiphany that this is the greatest indie creation of all time — it doesn’t hold a candle to similar albums like Neutral Milk Hotel’s “In The Aeroplane Over The Sea” or The Decemberists’ “Her Majesty.”
It’s possible that “Heretic Pride” makes more sense as the next step in The Mountain Goats’ constantly evolving musical practice than it does as an album on its own. But an album should be able to stand outside the context of the band’s oeuvre, and “Heretic Pride” unfortunately does not.