Let’s be clear: John Darnielle (essentially, the Mountain Goat) is a monstrously talented guy, and his prolific output and willingness to revisit past themes are unquestionable virtues, at least for those (like this critic) who enjoy his skewed perspective. There are few lyricists working today who have anything approaching his facility with a phrase, and since his Dylan-at-Newport lo-fi apostasy in 2002, he’s gotten a lot more adept at translating his compositions in the studio. Taken on its own merits, Heretic Pride is a success, anchored by some surprisingly assertive rock moments (the awesomely angular “Lovecraft in Brooklyn”) and featuring all the hyper-literate nasal passion we’ve come to expect. Some people would kill to make this record, and if it came from an artist who hadn’t already recorded eight jillion variations on this sound, it wouldn’t bring to mind the old, worn, incredibly comfortable sweater that you no longer wear but keep around for nostalgia’s sake. But it does.
For all the virtues of songs like the gentle, sentimental “San Bernardino” and the triumphant, synaesthetic title track, Darnielle has covered every last of these inches before. And the tedium he achieves through this single-mindedness is frankly not helped by the fact that there are some honest clunkers here too. “So Desperate” channels one of Darnielle’s most literally pathetic lyrics (“I felt so desperate in your arms/I felt so desperate in your arms”) through a vocal reading that shows off all the most awkward angles of his bleat. “Autoclave” is at least pretty, and its interpolation of the Cheers theme song is the album’s funniest moment, but it’s all bound up in a gross, obvious metaphor about how his heart’s gonna sterilize yours, girl. The lack of the sort of overarching theme that powered previous discography standouts Tallahassee and The Sunset Tree through their dull bits means that these moments rob the record of a lot of momentum and goodwill.