There’s a fear with all musicians, though especially with those prolific indie songwriters who record on the cheap in their friends’ studios, that they might fall into a comfort zone, a place where they’re less inclined to challenge both their listeners and themselves. With John Darnielle, it didn’t seem likely that he could fall into such a comfort zone because he was, or at least seemed to be, an innately uncomfortable person. But with every album since he’s abandoned shy boombox recording and embraced the possibilities of the studio, he’s loosened up. His audience has grown, too — to see him sing his deeply personal, elaborately worded story-songs at huge concert venues and festivals often feels like a royal mismatch, but he seems to have adapted to it. Accordingly, Heretic Pride is his first album that doesn’t quite feel like an album. It’s a collection that, unlike Tallahassee or The Sunset Tree, doesn’t have any overarching theme or chronology. There’s no context for tracks to be removed from as they’re isolated on blog posts or podcasts, or in low-budget, gag-driven videos. It functions, in other words, like a current pop record is supposed to.
Not to presume that it’s comparatively easy to write a set of individual songs so dense with emotion and detail, but Darnielle just works better in the long form and less when he’s assembling records piece-by-piece. Crafting entire albums darkened by the tension of divorce, child abuse, and shaky relationships of every sort has let his past work develop slowly over time. This one reveals itself too early on, leaving more time for one to sit back and wonder what his brilliant lyrics really stand to gain from being filtered through his nasal voice and set to melodies notable only for their vague familiarity. It even begs the question of what it might sound like if he did shatter that comfort zone: ‘In the Craters on the Moon’ and ‘Lovecraft in Brooklyn’ channel, albeit subtly, his self-assigned metalhead tendencies. Maybe, for once in a career known for its minimalism, he ought to indulge.