When we previewed Mount Moriah’s new album, How To Dance, back in November, we described how the band were “pushing passed their troubles into something positive and mysterious, a conglomeration of symbolism, mysticism, universality and other cosmic forces which pretty much equates to Southern Gothic 2.0.” If you are anything at all like us, this should have left you rather excited to hear the whole thing.

This new positive direction is clear from the start of How To Dance, the band toning down whatever indie rock leanings they had on their previous releases in favour of a full-bodied country sound. Opening track ‘Calvander’ pitches us right into the mix, a buoyant Americana song with snappy riffs and limber vocals and good-time horns. Though beneath this veneer lays the true value of Mount Moriah’s music. Heather McEntire’s lyrics have always been a cut above the standard fare, and here you get the sense she has honed her craft further still. Poetic yet simple, indirect without being indistinct, she conjures beauty from both the environment and the interior thoughts of her characters.

“Carry on and on and on on
With your cosmic reach
Newport river whispered fate
Spells cast with every crashing wave
Neon lines and a new name
Held up my palm and I offered up my face
Blue heart and a dark mind
Looking for any kind some kind of sign
I swear to God tonight
Those Jacksonville boys ain’t gonna find
Sweet Company”

As ‘Calvander’ suggests, the main theme of the record is one of belief, of finding meaning or hope in unlikely places, and ‘Precita’ is about just that, a chance encounter leading to something something special. “We turned into gold,” she sings, “and we turned into stars / The highest soul has the whitest spark”. ‘Baby Blue’ is a song about new beginnings, and while the refrain tells us that “nothing lasts forever”, the track is the antithesis of despair, urging us to appreciate good times while they’re present and to live in the moment. Though the lyrics feel intimate and personal, McEntire dedicates this sentiment to all who need to hear it, as shown by one of the album’s liner notes:

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‘Chiron (God in the Brier)’ is an upbeat track, filled with a positivity captured perfectly in the opening line (“Light came knocking, knocking on my door and I got no need for you no more!”). The track is rich in imagery and symbolism, its golden hours and harvest moons and crows and stags and ravens all very much loaded and meaningful. To push further, the titular Chiron is a notable centaur from Greek mythology, set apart from others for his abilities as a healer and oracle and his noble sacrifice of immortality (to become the constellation Centaurus), while Chiron Healing is a technique involving the understanding and repair of energy which surrounds us (including past emotions and experiences), facts which show just how far you can descend into these songs if you so choose.

‘Cardinal Cross’ provides another rabbit hole down which to tumble, referencing the cardinal grand cross of astrology. Essentially, a grand cross is formed when the four planets are equidistant and separated by 90 degrees, meaning the different aspects of a person are straining in opposite directions to create a tension-filled stalemate, and a cardinal grand cross ramps things up further as the cardinal signals of the zodiac are identity-based. As such, the track finds McEntire asking such questions (“Are you the woman you wanted to be?”) together with further abstract references we’ll leave you to figure out (cohosh, cinnamon, pendulums and heron to name a few). One of the beauties of How To Dance is that it’s as abstract as you want it to be, working on a variety of levels to ensure that no listener is alienated no matter how much work and faith they want to put into the symbolism on show.

“Eyes to the skies now slowly lift the veil.
Are you the woman you wanted to be?
The inner is outer, the inner is free!
Are you the lover you wanted to be?
Eclipse is a mirror, the mirror is me!
Grand, Grand Arsenal, Cardinal Cross!”

‘Fox in the City’ is a slow song where the past lingers like a low fog, the lyrics littered with references to North Carolina’s Carrboro, while ‘Higher Mind’ finds us jumping all over America, from California (“Honey Lake, 395”) to Macon, Georgia. While the song feels like the detailing of a personal journey, there is an overriding sense of community here, as if McEntire if sharing her story in preparation to hear our own. “We all got vices cause the pain still flows,” she sings, “we all got things we’re afraid to show. Do you have something to show?” This sense of unity is important to the record and Mount Moriah as a whole, transcending the lock of personal experience to be something directly relevant to us all, placing the mystical aspects into better context. McEntire isn’t looking to the gods and stars and natural world for some arcane secret she can wear around her neck. She’s looking and pointing and asking questions, never settling for what is accepted as normality or truth. She’s standing right there next to you and suggesting you do the same.

And this is where the record really clicks. We said earlier that the music works no matter how much work you are prepared to put in, but the phrasing is misleading. No amount of effort will obtain the true meaning because the meaning is not in the symbols but rather in the questioning. The imagery does not add up to any steadfast truth, because for us or anyone else to say, categorically, x means y would be to impose the very restrictions McEntire and Co. are trying to escape. The title track confronts this with graceful subtlety, a series of gentle questions which get to the heart of the societal pressure that tries to enforce a rigid existence.

“Baby, do you like to dance?
Do you like it slow or sorta fast?
Got a lot of people telling me how to dance”

So for all of it’s intricacies, which are undoubtedly interesting and rewarding to explore, the record is a simple one. How to Dance is crafted from spirit and faith, carved out of a high, wide hope capable of healing any wounds, giving us the courage not just to survive, but to live.

You can buy How to Dance now from Merge Records, including a rather lovely limited-edition coke bottle clear vinyl. Mount Moriah also have a Bandcamp page if that’s more your thing.

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