The Mountain Goats
By Eric Sams | 3 March 2008
September 27, 2007: When John Darnielle steps past the mic to sing the second verse of “Wild Sage” the world stops, seventy some hearts futilely steel themselves against an inexorable breaking, and the flames of the Pentecost wreath our heads, burning low and blue. The voice is the same without amplification and it beams magnanimously to the back of the room, filling it. And suddenly one of the most quiet, spare and achingly lonely songs in the Mountain Goats’ voluminous catalogue seems lush, immediate, and startlingly real.
I see Peter Hughes (the only backup Darnielle brought to the gig) outside of the venue, snapping a picture of the marquis across the stage boasting a Vanilla Ice appearance that night. I mumble out a “great show” and a “huge fan” and we stand and silently appreciate the ironic juxtaposition. Hughes leaves shortly after taking his picture, but that performance follows me through the snowy streets of Pittsburgh to a few crowded bars and then home. It sits at the foot of my bed as I sleep.
December 30, 2007: I receive a text message from a CMG compatriot. My Christmas break is coming to an end and I’m bored and depressed. The text reads simply, “New Mountain Goats on the [perfectly legal download machine]. Prepare for heartbreaking beauty.” Part of this is an acknowledgement of my ardent fanhood, but it is in equal measure a statement of fact. He knows it. I know it. I close my phone with a snap.
January 5, 2008: A dry snare click bolsters the Mountain Goats’ trademark rhythmic strums and Darnielle’s reedy baritone tells the story of an ominous morning where “every moment points toward the aftermath.” I listen to Heretic Pride three times continuously that day and am pleased, but not surprised, to find that the voice has lost none of the wiry force that struck a crowd dumb months ago.
Darnielle’s voice is the threshold test for Goats appreciation. It always elicits a strong reaction. You must deal with the voice one way or another before you get it, before the “heartbreaking beauty” can be yours. This is an important half of the Mountain Goats overall appeal: the voice forces you immediately to a decision, to engage or not, to buy in or not. Part of the unique tremulous immediacy of the band comes from this confrontation.
January 11, 2008: If I had heard Heretic Pride that night, standing maw agape in that smoky, undercrowded venue it would have struck me that there is exactly one line on the album that rings false.
On “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” Darnielle describes a night terror: “Woke up afraid of my own shadow / Like, genuinely afraid.” It’s a bad line. Sure, he’s appropriating the voice of his character—but still. It hitches this particular track’s hurtling gait, but it would land badly in any Mountain Goats song because it is utterly, ridiculously superfluous.
Even at his most abstract, his most obscure, his most manic, we always believe the words that John Darnielle is singing. This is the other half of the Mountain Goats’ singular mystique. No other human writing songs today channels so much ethos from his founding myths with such economic references. He wraps his words achingly tight around steely emotions and then punches us in the kidney with them until we believe them. Shit, not only do we believe them, they stay with us. They follow us home.
February 16, 2007: Even on a four hour Greyhound ride the Mountain Goats can be edge-of-your-seat music, no less so on this effort because it is preoccupied with society’s outermost fringe. I’m exhausted, but in the cramped, pungent allotment of space I’m given on the bus sleep is not a realistic option. I’m surrounded by a cross-section of that fringe myself, feeling not a little isolated and paranoid. My earbuds are playing my bus ride’s sound track: “I start to sweat / I can’t cool down / I’m scared of all the strangers in this town… / I made it through town somehow / but who’s going to save me now? / I’m out of my element / I can’t breath.” I realize that my fists are clenched in my lap. The song is making me tense. I turn off my iPod and listen to the grind of the engine in the dark.
February 19, 2008: I’m bored in class so I read a few reviews of the newly released album. Much is being made of its balance. By this I think the reviewers are alluding to the fact that Darnielle is not writing autobiographical narratives on this album as he has on his last three so he’s free to create stories again instead of relating them. Because of this he’s much more apt to temper the jagged desperation that ran roughshod over the poor bastard in Get Lonely (2006) and temper it with the whispered eloquent introspections of his characters. He allows them to have moments of tranquility that he never gives himself.
I guess instead of using the word balance I might say that Heretic Pride is life and death music and not life or death music. The texture of Darnielle’s storytelling is interwoven with such generosity in both categories. Often they are in close proximity; sometimes they’re conflated into moments where they’re the same thing. On the album’s title track a witch being dragged to execution glories in her last moments of existence: “Rocks in the pathway break my skin / There’s honeysuckle on the faint breeze today / With every breath I’m drawing in. / (...) And I feel so proud to be alive / I will be so proud when the Reckoning arrives.”
February 29, 2008: I’ve spent a long time with this music and I’ve not been much moved to talk about how it actually sounds. All of these songs have their sonic antecedents somewhere in the Mountain Goats’ fifteen or so studio albums. Even the reggae tinges in the record’s second half harken back to “Song for Dennis Brown.”
It just seems more important to me to focus not on what Darnielle has changed—certainly not his musical presentation—but on what has stayed the same: the potency of the overall output. This is not just music that I believe, in the sense that it is credible, but this is music to believe in. Any one of these songs could have had the same effect that “Wild Sage” had on that September night. This album, like almost all Mountain Goats fare, has legs enough to follow you home.