by carl wilson

Three or Four Goats out of Five?

Centre, John Darnielle; right, Peter Hughes; lower middle, drummer Jon Wurster.
Rear, just nudging into the frame: that missing star from my Blender review.

My review of The Mountain Goats' Heretic Pride, written two months ago, is finally up on the Blender site. Magazine time takes time to get in tune with. Also, looking through this month's review section I decidedly feel like I underrated the record: nothing wrong with the writeup itself (well, one thing, which I'll get to) but it should have been four stars instead of three. This is one of the flaws of the starring system quite apart from the reductiveness and near-meaninglessness of it: Unless you're the editor and can compare how every writer is rating records, each of us are using a star system in our minds and that adds up to an incoherent syntax. For example, here's Xgau giving Ottawa's Kathleen Edwards a thanks-but-no-thanks review. Three stars. Meanwhile I had in mind more the question, "How does this record rank among Mountain Goats records?" because I assume that relative to most records, every TMGs record is a five-star record. I was thinking, "If Sunset Tree and Sweden are five-star TMGs records and maybe Get Lonely and Nine Black Poppies are four-star TMGs records, then maybe this and Nothing For Juice are three-star TMGs records."

I may have been "wrong" about that - it earns four stars relative to TMGs norms, I feel now (stars are all about mouth-feel, or the aural equivalent) - but not no-better-than-Pride-Tiger wrong.

On more substantive grounds, the following thoughts got left out or muddled by space squeeze: First, I wanted to say that fans might end up calling Heretic Pride "the drums record," unless touring and all the fan enthusiasm over "Lovecraft in Brooklyn" makes the next one even more of a drums record. Second, in the review I ended up saying, "The mixture of corrupters and corruptees helps Darnielle explore the nature of evil without losing his sense of humor." This is not quite what I meant. Rather, what helps him do that is the mixture of a psychological naturalism (albeit an expressionistic one) with imagery and characters from genres that either reject or don't bother with psychology (such as horror and fantasy). It's like Ibsen or Strindberg being directed by Roger Corman or Russ Meyer. Things that would be too overwhelming to face become approachable because they are situated "In the Craters on the Moon" (which I've lately come to consider less an Iraq song than a New Orleans song, though I know that it isn't "really" either one) or in a comic book or a pulp novel. (Even "San Bernadino" almost, almost, seems like it could be set in a Harlequin-style romance. "Marduk T-Shirt Men's Room Incident," on the other hand, doesn't allow any such outs; only its elliptical lyrical style prevents it from being unbearable.)

Finally, "succumb, willingly or not, to corruption" is an understatement of what happens in many of these songs. I hadn't been living with the record long enough when I wrote it to understand that the "heretic pride" of the title, as I and others have discussed before, has to do with characters throwing themselves willfully, sometimes almost gleefully, into the flames (in at least one song, literally so) - affirming their humanity, even if they can affirm nothing else.

General | Posted by zoilus on Monday, March 17 at 4:14 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (3)



I'd also add that in each of those cases, the grade was a device that added a touch of humor or audacity to the review.

Posted by Alex Rawls on March 18, 2008 5:33 PM



Yes, that's what i meant in reference to "the reductiveness and near-meaninglessness of it" - but I've ranted against grading systems in relationship to critical writing in so many different places that I didn't want to repeat the point. But I also wanted to point out that even if you like ratings systems, they're nearly impossible for any publication with multiple writers to administer coherently. Christgau's Consumer Guide and Siskel/Ebert's thumbs both worked because every rating was relative to ratings made by the same entity. Not so with a magazine's ratings.

Posted by zoilus on March 18, 2008 3:30 PM



I share your hostility toward stars but for a different reason - because they sell out writers. You work on trying to say something nuanced, then have it reduced to something as nuance-less as a grade. And, the grade affects whether or not people will read your review. The only people reading reviews of albums that received middling grades are fans of the band.

Posted by Alex Rawls on March 18, 2008 1:54 PM




Zoilus by Carl Wilson