I'm James Maxey, the author of numerous novels of fantasy and science fiction. I use this site to discuss a wide range of topics, with a heavy emphasis on cranky, uninformed rants about politics and religion and other topics that polite people attempt to avoid. For anyone just wanting to read about my books, I maintain a second blog, The Prophet and the Dragon, where I keep the focus solely on my fiction. I also have a webpage where both blogs stream, with more information about all my books, at jamesmaxey.net.


Thursday, March 06, 2008

Heretic Pride

Long time readers of my blog know I'm a big fan of the Mountain Goats... the band, not the animal. They just put out a new album last month, and it's the first album in ages that doesn't have a unifying theme. The last album, Get Lonely, was an album full of songs about an emotionally crippled man, possibly homeless, who spends a lot of time on the edges of society before finally offing himself in the final track. Before that, the Sunset Tree explored John Darnielle's personal story of his relationship with his abusive stepfather. We Shall All Be Healed was the story of a bunch of tweakers (meth users), and the whole trend of "theme" albums was really launched by Tallahassee, where John shed the low-fi sound of his earlier albums for higher production values as he told the story of an unhappy couple who stayed together only by staying drunk. Each of these albums were full of songs that were best understood in the context of the other songs, and everything worked together to form one overall story arc.

With Heretic Pride, the unifying theme is gone, but the ghosts of these previous albums live on. As I listen to this album, I keep finding myself plugging the songs into the story lines of earlier works.

"Sax Rohmer #1" would fit quite neatly onto the Tallahassee album; it's all about things decaying and spinning out of control as "every moment leads toward it's own sad end," yet the narrator insists in the chorus, "I am coming home to you with my own blood in my mouth." It easily fits into what John refers to as his "alpha" series, songs about a drunken dysfunctional couple.

"San Bernidino" reminds me of We Shall All Be Healed both musically and lyrically, while "Autoclave" reminds me of The Sunset Tree --"I am this great unstable mass of blood and foam and no one in her right mind would make my heart her home."

I wasn't a huge fan of Get Lonely, but my favorite track on Heretic Pride, "Marduk T-Shirt Men's Room Incident" would be perfectly at home on that album with it's narrator telling a girl in a bathroom who has obviously just survived some horrible experience:

"Stay formless,

It's an odd song that seems to offer hope in the fact that a human life is a rather ephemeral thing; our worst moments drift off into time little remembered or mourned, so there's no point for us to let them weigh us down. It's almost as if our very insignificance is a key to a type of holiness. Or, perhaps I'm reading too much into this. Of course, one reason I've been a fan of the Mountain Goats through a string of over ten albums is that John's songs possess that marvelous quality of seeming to be full of meaning--they reward listening and relistening in a way that lesser artist can't quite achieve. I've probably listened to The Coroner's Gambit album well over a hundred times, and every time I always seem to find some new poetic key that unfolds a new message. I listen to the mountain goats with the same faithful ferver that some men read the Bible.

Still, as much as I love the mountain goats, I was willing to pan their last album as mopey and overly produced. Hopefully my willingness to give them a thumbs down will give extra weight to the thumbs up I'm giving Heretic Pride. I've been listening to it non-stop since I picked it up last week, and I have a feeling that the next mix album I make of MG material will be heavy with tracks from Heretic Pride. As I type this, I'm listening to track 8, "Lovecraft in Brooklyn." What other songwriter could pull of a climax to a song like this?

Woke up afraid of my own shadow,
like, genuinely afraid.
Headed for the pawnshop
to buy myself a switchblade.
Someday something's coming
from way out beyond the stars
to kill us while we stand here;
it will store our brains in mason jars.
And then the girl behind the counter asks "How do you feel today?"
and I say "I feel like Lovecraft in Brooklyn!"

Ah, good stuff. And I can't think of any other album this song fits on. Ultimately, it's songs like this that really pull Heretic Pride over the line into greatness.


Loren Eaton said...

I've never heard of The Mountain Goats before, but I love the "I feel like Lovecraft in Brooklyn" line. Great ...

James Maxey said...

The Mountain Goats don't get much in the way of radio time except maybe on college stations. They also seem to have some fans at NPR, since I've heard their music as a "bump" on a few shows, including a really long section from "This Year" on Car Talk. The easiest way to sample their music these days is go go to you tube and search for mountain goats. Lots of concert clips and the small handful of "official" videos are available. The "This Year" video is my favorite of the bunch. Steer clear of the "Woke Up New" video though. It's quite possibly my least favorite MG song ever, nothing but whining set to music. The great thing about most MG songs is that even when he's singing about things like fear and lonliness and sorrow, he's normally doing so with a defiant, fighting tone. He might be afraid of aliens coming down to steal his brain, but he's not taking it sitting down... he's going to get himself a switchblade. "Woke Up New," somehow didn't get this fighting spirit.