John Darnielle’s songs operate with the grace of a slasher movie: precise in their depiction of messy situations (and vice versa), triumphant even in desperation, usually grisly, sometimes hilarious. His meth addicts have the wherewithal to tell you the exact street corner on which they are slowly and almost certainly dying; a couple of minutes later, responding to the promise of a friend sending more “electrical equipment,” they say things like “That’s good, we could always use some more electrical equipment,” with absolutely no intention of explaining to you just what for. On 2002’s “The Fall of the High School Running Back,” Darnielle narrates the collapse and subsequent conviction of a teenager in one minute and 50 seconds, and manages to include the perp’s full name, first, middle, and last—and quote Biggie.
“I like confusing, confused, confusion-soaked stuff,” Darnielle (the band’s songwriter and synonym) says. He started recording his voice and acoustic guitar onto a boom box in 1992. His songs were—and still are, in a sense, despite Darnielle’s having shifted to studio-fashioned, full-band albums with 2002’s Tallahassee—triumphs of musical simplicity: spirited folk rock with salient melodies, unfussy harmonies, and structures that often lack bridges (or sometimes even choruses). Darnielle’s obsession is lyrics; he once explained that music was a way for him to slip words under people’s doormats. But his lines—”I hope you die,” “Get in the goddamn car,” “There is nothing like cold water”—register more obviously as bludgeons than poetry. And as with horror, it’s not violence that lends intensity to his songs, but dread: the swollen interstices between violent moments, the parade of ominous signs that never culminates in a referent. In the case of 1995’s “Nine Black Poppies,” it’s the feeling that living with a suspicious package sitting on the counter is more excruciating than opening it; it’s never knowing if the monster under the bed is there because you’re gripped by the thrill of not looking.
Heretic Pride, his most elaborately arranged studio album yet, opens with “Sax Rohmer #1,” the familiar grind of a character valiantly trying to make it home in a world full of reasons why he won’t. Reality is so absurdly stacked against him that my inclination is to laugh, but it’s hard to laugh at someone who admits his mouth is full of his own blood. Darnielle’s flurry of downstrokes—he has about three different song types, the flurry-of-downstrokes model being the signature and possibly most beloved among them—is mimicked by the rattle of snare and the somersault of tom-toms. His urgency—and the song’s poignancy—is encapsulated by the title’s reference to Sax Rohmer, the English pulp novelist: a character blessed with an eye keen enough to catalog the grimness that surrounds him, but also dumb enough to believe he’s going to escape it.
Darnielle used to sound detached from his characters—it’s what enabled him to crack the occasional joke about domestic abuse, or to make alcoholics look as simultaneously entertaining and untrustworthy as they usually are. Robert Christgau, writing on 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed in this paper, asserted that Darnielle’s characters weren’t redeemed by his love, but by his interest. Which, until now, has been absolutely true. “I have loads of affection for them all, for sure,” Darnielle admits. “But my relationship to most of them is the relationship you have with a close friend who you know is also a chronic liar.”
On Heretic Pride, he imagines the world as a laboratory for evil—the kind of place where optimism only exists as a set of delusions that he indulges. And I’d say his indulgence redeems these characters, only it doesn’t—it just adds sting to their losses. In the past, Darnielle alerted us to the rich humanity of fuck-ups; now, the fuck-ups aren’t just fuck-ups, they’re supervillains. And they end up on thrones, undisturbed in their own tiny spheres—a considerably more comfortable vantage point than penniless at an AA meeting in a church basement. Children splash at the shores of Heaven Lake, between China and North Korea, where the Tianchi monster occasionally surfaces to devour someone. In a bathroom, somewhere in the universe, a woman is raped, or murdered, or both; her assailant describes only her T-shirt, because he doesn’t have the stomach to look at her face. On “Autoclave,” Darnielle sings: “I dreamt that I was perched atop a throne of human skulls/On a cliff above the ocean, howling wind and shrieking seagulls/And the dream went on forever, one single static frame/Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name.” He’s the only lyricist I can think of with a sense of empathy wry enough and deep enough to liken a teenager’s vision of hell to Cheers.
And these are the moments of repose, Darnielle’s retreats into delicate string filigree and close-mic’ed acoustic guitars. The restrained staccato of “Autoclave” carries none of the imperative of “Sax Rohmer #1,” because it wouldn’t make sense to. Instead, it bops along with a metronomic dispassion that mirrors the narrator’s sense of his personality as a fortress for itself. On “San Bernardino,” he narrates the exodus of a new family with a sympathetic tremble in his voice as the string section twitches with ecstatic hesitance: hopes and fears tempering each other, rattling like porcelain dolls on a helicopter ride. The irony that has sharpened Darnielle’s lyrics into darts for the past 15 years has finally wormed its way into his music. And while he looses some duds (“New Zion,” “So Desperate,” and “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature” are skippable) and a set of slightly duller lyrics, the conceits of the songs—the central images of good floundering in an evil world, of contented monsters, of the naiveté of the faithful—serve to substantiate the album as a whole more than any one line, verse, or song does.
If villains find a home on earth, heroes only suffer displacement. “Sept. 15th 1983” laments the murder of reggae singer Prince Far I: “Try, try your whole life to be righteous and be good/Wind up on your own floor, choking on blood.” Or, as on “Lovecraft in Brooklyn,” they buckle to paranoia: “Woke up afraid of my own shadow/Like, genuinely afraid/Headed for the pawnshop to buy myself a switchblade.” Characters in Darnielle’s songs have always fallen to their faults, but their faults are usually more clear-cut: selfishness, irresponsibility, violence. The only fault on Heretic Pride turns out to be having faith. Prince Far I, shot thanks to causes totally out of his control, bleeds to death on a floor and still dreams of Israel, the home God has promised for him. The meth addicts on We Shall All Be Healed were every bit as delusional, but at least they were on drugs. Here, it’s hard to tell whether Prince Far I’s convictions are being pitied or celebrated—actually, they’re both.
Before dedicating himself full-time to music, Darnielle worked as a psychiatric nurse and a children’s counselor. “Most of what you learn from these jobs is respect and love for people who’ve been dealt a raw hand by life—and most of the other things you learn, it would be kind of unseemly to talk about,” he says. His past albums have considered the people who have been dealt raw hands and gambled everything anyway; Heretic Pride pans up to the dealer. How can these situations exist? Why do bad people get away with bad things while good people get shot during dinner? The album’s characters are infinitely less complicated than meth addicts or abusive couples, but the world they live in has become convoluted and dangerous. It’s a place where heretic pride gets you a Springsteenian anthem about being buried alive in a public square, while sexual violence is perpetrated under a canopy of violins—a world so unsettlingly familiar that it’s kind of him to pretend it’s only pulp fiction.