The Mountain Goats’ new album climbs high

John Darnielle has managed to prove, once again, that he is one of the best singer-songwriters performing today. Recording under the moniker The Mountain Goats, Darnielle continues to spin lyrical stories on his newest release, Heretic Pride.

Darnielle’s musical style has come a long way from his original modest lo-fi recordings. He began performing as a college student in 1991, and for the first decade of his career preferred simple recordings of his vocals and guitar to elaborate arrangements. His last several records released by British label 4AD, also home to such indie darlings as M. Ward and Beirut, have featured more diverse instrumentation and production, as can be seen on 2006’s Get Lonely.

On Heretic Pride, Darnielle is joined by long-time collaborators Peter Hughes and Franklin Bruno as well as the all-female Bright Mountain Choir who appeared on many of his early albums. Other guest appearances include Annie Clark of St. Vincent on guitar and noted cellist Erik Freidlander, who contributes string arrangements to tracks like “San Bernadino.” Also on the record, Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster plays a crucial role in translating Darnielle’s trademark driving guitar rhythm into subtle rock percussion.

In another departure from his initial barebones style, producers John Vanderslice and Scott Solter help manage the orchestration in a way that recalls Darnielle’s lo-fi roots, keeping the music mostly about the lyrics and his high-pitched voice. Vanderslice, a singer-songwriter himself, will open for Steven Malkmus and The Jicks at MASSMoCA this April.

Lyrically, Heretic Pride marks a shift away from the autobiographical nature of the last several Mountain Goats records, returning to Darnielle’s imaginative stories about real and fictional characters. The album opens with “Sax Rohmer, Pt. 1,” which tells the story of a man desperately trying to return home, inspired by the true stories of Sax Rohmer, the pulp fiction writer who gave us Fu Manchu. “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” similarly references horror fiction writer H.P. Lovecraft and the xenophobia he experienced after moving from rural Massachusetts to Brooklyn. Reggae artist Prince Far I’s unsolved murder is told through the eyes of an observer on “Sept. 15th 1983.”

Other songs are less literally based on true events, such as “San Bernadino,” which tells the story of a couple having their first child in a motel bathroom, while “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature” deals with the struggle of telling a loved one about feeling alienated. The most chill song on the album has to be “Tianchi Lake,” which tells the story of a Chinese Loch Ness monster and the people who enjoy sharing its lake.

The title track is easily one of the most well-crafted on the disc. While the lyrics describe a public stoning, the narrator describes how he will “feel so proud when the reckoning arrives” rather than expressing remorse or showing fear. Set to a driving beat and typical jangly guitar, the song manages to feel like an ordinary and upbeat rock song, although discussing a somewhat disturbing method of dying.

Another standout track, “Marduk T-Shirt Men’s Room Incident,” with its lone acoustic guitar and delicate backup vocals and string accents, manages to create a haunting encounter out of a situation some may be familiar with: how to avoid disturbing a drunk or otherwise incapacitated stranger in a public bathroom.

Not every song is completely memorable. The fittingly-named “So Desperate” shows Darnielle getting somewhat desperate himself – his straining voice on the chorus doesn’t sound endearing; it sounds pitiful. Likewise, “New Zion” is an inaccessible song about joining a cult, which manages to confuse the listener rather than telling a story.

But the lyricism in the other tracks makes up for this. Darnielle’s attention to intimate and vivid detail – “The house still smells like onions when the ambulance arrives” from “Sept. 15th 1983” – helps bring the majority of Heretic Pride’s images alive.

All in all, The Mountain Goats’ newest effort is a somewhat eclectic mix of interesting stories set to easy-to-listen-to pop arrangements. Fans of indie rock will not be disappointed; neither will those looking for a decent album to study with. For those who like to sample music before buying, The Mountain Goats’ homepage links to a stream of samples from the CD.