Something that I think is becoming increasingly lost in music is something that should be regarded as its most important aspect: the art of storytelling. Sure, some bands' songs may tell of how the singer felt when his father passed away, or a rapper may tell of how he broke from poverty to a life of privilege, and that's all well and good, but in both instances there's no real, tangible story. It's usually a sporadic recalling of events.
The Mountain Goats have always been a cut above, though, and John Darnielle has always exemplified the power that comes from a well-told story. It's not just in the details or the recreation, but in the way Darnielle is able to masterfully craft every aspect of the story, to make for a gorgeous and engaging narrative. He's one of the last true storytellers left.
Heretic Pride continues this fine tradition, and while some may still complain that his transition to playing with a full band was for the worse, I'll contest without hesitation that it was for the better. When the violin cries while Darnielle laments "I checked us into our hotel and filled the bathtub, and you got in the warm warm water / I pulled the pedals from my pockets, I loved you so much right then" on "San Bernadino" it's impossible to not be enraptured by the beauty -- the beauty of Darnielle's voice and the beauty of the story that it helped to tell. Also on full display in the song is Darnielle's penchant for delivering a line, pausing to peak the drama, and starting to sing again. It's a simple technique, but a noticeable one that has a huge impact on how these songs actually come across. "In the Craters on the Moon" employs this technique as well, giving every single word in the song that much more weight.
The punchy acoustic strumming and subtle but powerful drumming give the three-and-a-half minute song an epic feel, and Darnielle's trembling vocals draw every line of lyrics out, almost making each line seem like it's a song of its own. Each line has its own identity, giving anyone listening ample time to take it all in. It's rare that each individual line on a song has as much impact as the song on its whole, but Darnielle's always been able to eloquently state in a line what it would take others an entire dissertation to do.
Amazing as every track on the album is, it's the title track where the Mountain Goats shine the brightest. A triumphant beacon as profound as it is intelligent, "Heretic Pride" incites an energy and conviction that few, if any bands can match. The story of a heretic on his way to be killed in the town square, the song is actually an exercise in the appreciation of life and the defiance of a man who knows that his is ending.
Well they come and pull me from my house, and they drag my body through the streets / And the sun's so hot I think I'll catch fire and burn up, in the summer air so moist and sweet / And the people all come out to cheer, rocks in the pathway break my skin / And there's honeysuckle on the faint breeze today, with every breath I'm drawing in / Crowds grow denser by the second, as we near the center of the town / And they dig a trench right in the main square right there, they pick me up and throw me down / And I start laughing like a child, I mark their faces one by one / Transfigurations gonna come for me at last, and I will burn hotter than the sun.In the face of indomitable odds, the man in this story stays true to himself until his very last breath, and Darnielle makes damn sure that his admirable defiance is not lost on anyone listening. The song might be about a heretic, a type of person not many can relate to in 2008, but the beauty of it, as with most Mountain Goats songs, is that the crux of the story is applicable to so many things. The song is just as profound when taken literally as figuratively, and the defiance of that man is equally reflected in the last words that Darnielle shouts:
I waited so long and now I taste jasmine on my tongue, and I feel so proud to be alive, and I feel so proud when the reckoning arrives.True to his last breath, Darnielle has once again, through such simple means, given a much larger picture for us all to think about. And you know what?
When I listen to this record, I feel so proud to be alive.