The Mountain Goats Heretic Pride
Photo via 4AD Records

The Mountain Goats Brought a Secular Sense of Spirituality to ‘Heretic Pride’

The Mountain Goats’ Heretic Pride is the sound of connection and change of direction, a way for John Darnielle to connect his audience with a new joyful sound.

Heretic Pride
The Mountain Goats
18 February 2008

Alongside peers such as Frank Black/Black Francis, Jeff Tweedy, and James Mercer, John Darnielle has crafted one of the most impressive bodies of work for singer-songwriters in recent memory. For an example of this output, he was cited as creating 600 songs in 15 years as of 2009, and that was nine albums ago and a handful of EPs, so I leave the rest of the math up to you, dear reader. While his peers are arguably less prolific over the same period (although based on my list Tweedy would be the closest second), Darnielle‘s constant output often confronts emotions, memories, and feelings of being present, shedding skins and presenting his crafted art in a continuous state of becoming. The early part of the 2000s saw Darnielle in a state of constant becoming, and a significant leap for his ideas is very present in 2008’s Heretic Pride

From 2000 to 2008, while stringing together impressive songwriting through individual narrative collections (All Hail West Texas, Get Lonely), literary one shots (Tallahassee), and autobiographical excursions (We Shall All Be Healed, The Sunset Tree), the template for the Mountain Goats‘ songs was clear. Healing, whether emotional or physical, sometimes joyful, sometimes painful, comes in many forms, and it does not shy away from the spiritual aspect of life. Spirituality in the music of the Mountain Goats is one of reflection.

Darnielle’s songs are often parables with simple messages transported through sharp lyrics and unforgettable melodic hooks that stick in your cranium like the most effective earworms of pop radio. Spiritual in the music and lyrics of Darnielle is not necessarily religious, maybe more akin to a Jodoworsky spiritual warrior type, although he tests the biblical waters fully with the inspired 2009 release of The Life of the World to Come. This aspect of the secular sense of spirituality in his output is essential to dig into as it can reflect what is found in not only Heretic Pride but in many of the recorded and live performances of the Mountain Goats.

The year 2008 experienced a negative flux in the United States. However, it seems in the 21st century a tad redundant to describe specific time frames in recent memory in any type of “flux” because it feels like any expansion or change is no more than an ever-expanding wave of trouble that continues to get taller and wider with no hope of ever genuinely crashing and resetting. In 2008, the United States was experiencing an economic crash, a hangover of eight years of conservative-fueled political leadership, questionable military action, and engaging in a still new-ish phenomenon known as social media, which was beginning to “liberate” speech on the ever consuming beast that was becoming the modern day internet. If we could argue that Get Lonely, a collection of songs that sounds exactly as the album title describes the characters within it, fit the mood of the country coming into 2008, then Heretic Pride was the bounceback with Darnielle deciding to collapse his creative wave and start anew.

Also, 2008 was the year of my tragedy in the form of divorce. While in hindsight, I should not be surprised two latchkey kids of the divorce generation of the 1980s couldn’t make something work, the loneliness and isolation of the time post-marriage still stick with me. Even through therapy, to this day, I often think about how music, the intangible spirituality of this or that sound or some set of lyrics blaring from a tiny stereo system in a small cramped apartment scattered with unpacked boxes, helped heal me in times that I can honestly say were the darkest. I mention this personal anecdote to reinforce that sometimes “spiritual” in music has a much broader definition, and music has “saved” me in a sense, providing an outlet for an outsider to find comfort. 

Heretic Pride continues to indulge Darnielle’s fascination with the outsider; in one case, a heretic to be burned alive is represented in the title track. This fascination with the outsider, the way Darnielle writes about people on the margins, is one of the strong points that draws someone into the sphere of his oeuvre. The random assortment of characters on the album are murderers, victims, lovers, paranoids, mythical beasts, and actors.

The binding agent, and what makes Heretic Pride a unique album and worth revisiting or reevaluating, is Darnielle’s ability to infuse many of the characters with a sense that there is a purpose greater than what currently inhibits them in life. This is the dynamic of spirituality that Darnielle excels at, and his departure into larger zeitgeist territory on this album through his lyrics and a more accessible sound helps make the theme of hope and change possible for the listener to connect with.  

By 2008, when Heretic Pride was initially released, Darnielle had already begun to shift the sound of the Mountain Goats to a more polished effort from album to album. Working with producers such as John Vanderslice, an accomplished musician and producer in his own right, the static whir of the Boombox recording, which had brought Darnielle so much attention in the 1990s and culminated in All Hail West Texas released in 2002, was put to the side in trying to get what I can surmise is the larger musical vision to daylight. The Mountain Goats sound was now the classic three-piece band set-up of guitar, bass, drums, and myriad other instrumental sounds. 

Heretic Pride sees the addition of John Wurster on drums, which complements and enhances the musicality of both bassist Peter Hughes and Darnielle. The sound is like a shot of lightning throughout the album. It’s a clear call that the band has changed (and now cemented a studio and traveling trio, which remains to this day), Darnielle has changed. This set of songs set a new course for an artist who, in the two years between Get Lonely and Heretic Pride, has had life changes and wants to share that with an audience that is as rabid a fan base as jam bands such as Phish. This is the sound of connection and change of direction, a way for Darnielle to communicate clearly with an audience on a new joyful sound that takes the best parts of the past and molds them into something new and ever-changing.