And that's a problem. Darnielle's genius doesn't lie in his amazing arrangements, his ability to shred or his good looks. From the time he started with nothing but a guitar, a bottle of Bartles & James and a low-quality tape recorder, Darnielle has always been a poet, and his strength comes from taking a subject that touches a nerve with most people and teasing it up with poetry until the listener is left with a stylized (but raw) peek at the world as Darnielle dreams it. On Heretic Pride, Darnielle nails stylization, but sometimes, his weak delivery wins out over his lyrical brilliance.
John Darnielle is a captivating person to watch and listen to, but not because he has a good voice. Much like Jeff Mangum, the strength of Darnielle's voice isn't in its quality, but in how he uses it. His voice is built for passionate growls that bleed with intensity. It's made for singing poetry that speaks to the very core of your being. There's nothing very pretty about his voice, but it was always good enough. For a man singing about alcoholism, domestic abuse and perpetual abandonment, quaking tone and an abrasive bray fits just fine.
When I heard Darnielle making an earnest attempt to sing smooth over power-popper "Autoclave," I felt a little sick. I don't like hearing Darnielle sound so cavalier when babbling on about a throne of skulls. Where's the raw shake? The quivering voice of a man on the edge of saying a bitter farewell to the world and driving off a cliff? It's almost like Darnielle is devolving as an artist from someone who was comfortable with his flaws to someone afraid to be chastised.
The album is dressed up in instrumentation to a greater degree than any other Mountain Goats album in the past. Unfortunately, Darnielle has never been a great musician. He's a competent songwriter with a great ear for melody, but has never been very good at arranging a diverse array of instruments. Like on The Sunset Tree, some of the arrangements are very solid. Others fall back on kitschy pop-rock territory. A good example of this is the opening to "San Bernadino," which sounds like a track off of any of the Mountain Goats' past couple albums with a U2 guitar line plunked in. There's a ghosting of the type of melodies that made Tallahasee and All Hail West Texas two of my favorite albums of all time, which is encouraging, but the instrumental arrangements on Heretic Pride hinder the album's melodic development more than they help.
Overall, as a huge Mountain Goats fan, I'm disappointed in Heretic Pride (which is a huge bummer, since I avoided all hype and spoilers. Thanks for ruining my 21st birthday, John). It's more-or-less a solid album, but Pride definitely lacks the punch of previous albums. I never really missed the lo-fi hiss of his earlier albums because the later ones had really interesting lyrical content and spot-on vocal performances. But with weak arrangements and shy vocals, I'm starting to miss the tape recorder.