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The Mountain Goats, ‘Heretic Pride’ (4AD)

On the last two Mountain Goats albums, singer/guitarist John Darnielle exchanged the densely detailed character studies of his earlier records for an introspective account of his troubled childhood. Here he returns to the short-story approach that established him as one of pop’s savviest lyricists: Among other topics, Heretic Pride includes tunes about crime novelist Sax Rohmer, the death of reggae figure Prince Far I, and scifi/horror guru H.P. Lovecraft’s move to Brooklyn. But if Darnielle has satisfied his autobiographical jones, this batch of tunes is still suffused with the confessional vibe that made The Sunset Tree and Get Lonely unlikely emofolk touchstones.

Some of that is due to the finely drawn chamber-twang arrangements, produced by Scott Solter with help from John Vanderslice, and played in part by St. Vincent’s Annie Clark, cellist Erik Friedlander,and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster. As always on a Mountain Goats record, though, it’s about Darnielle’s writing-the extra moment he spends admiring the young couple having a baby in a California motel room in “San Bernardino” or his wry sympathy for the nonbeliever being burned at the stake in “Heretic Pride” (whose title, he admits in the CD’s press materials, was swiped from a Norwegian black-metal band). That’s good storytelling, of course, but it’s also a clever bit of real life poking through the fiction.