“And a rabbit gives up somewhere / and a dozen hawks descend”

I hope everyone has the experience of a band dropping into their life at just the right moment. I’ve been lucky in that it’s happened for me not once, but thrice. The Mountain Goats’ Heretic Pride album wasn’t one of those magical experiences for me, but I can’t escape the certainty that it was for somebody. For one thing, I think the album is the best album of the millennium thus far. But for another, it might be the best articulation of alienation in all of Western Art.

Okay, that’s a strong claim. It’s not as good as “The Metamorphosis”, but it’s in the same class.

The sound of Heretic Pride is the sound of looking around to find yourself the only honest man in a sea of liars. Or the only Christian in a Colosseum full of lions and cheering Romans. Or the only man on a planet of apes (or vice versa). It’s a record that perfectly describes being alone because you are the only thing you’re capable of being. Which just happens to be entirely alien.

“Woke up afraid of my own shadow. / Like genuinely afraid.”

Peter Hughes’ bass lines on this track are the reason I own a bass. That’s not even hyperbole or a joke. I bought the album and became fiercely obsessed with this song. The part I kept coming back back to was the jumping, thunking of the bass that just barely grounds the frenetic drums and growling rhythm guitar. I love the nervous counter-melody it provides for John Darnielle’s vocal paranoia. So it was that I found myself walking through guitar center, hum-mumbling the bass line, and ended up walking out with an Ibanez bass and an appropriately modest bass amp.

Turns out it’s a pretty damned hard line to figure out. And to be honest, I haven’t made the time to become a bassist good enough to learn it. After all, you don’t become a good musician by learning good songs, but rather the other way around. Just as you don’t get to become an authentic human being by doing unique stuff, but rather the inverse. That’s a point that I think is at the root of the cultural plague of hipsterism, but that’s probably a rant for another post.

But it’s a cogent point. Authenticity can’t be bought cheaply. There’s a dear cost to being a unique, vibrant human being willing to commit to whatever it is that drives you and defines you. Heretic Pride serves as a beautiful and brutal ledger of that cost. That accounting has to bring succor to someone. At least convince them that the prize is with the price.

Well when the house goes up in flames / no one emerges triumphantly from it

The whole album is rich with Kafkarna. The feeling of finding yourself trapped in a world ludicrous on its face, and yet finding everyone else around you taking it seriously. Or of finding yourself cast, despite your nature, in the role of the villain. I think that experience is really at the heart of Heretic Pride. And the counsel it gives is that sometimes you have to embrace that role, because the alternative is to live a lie. If society claims you’re a villain for your very nature, at least be a good one. Epictetus says that the punishment of those who do not accept their nature is to be just as they are. You can’t change your nature, you might as well enjoy playing your part.

Aldous Huxley said of Isaac Newton, “as a man he was a failure; as a monster he was superb.” Heretic Pride gives us the courage to do the same, if being a monster is the part we’ve been written into.

Transfiguration’s gonna come for me at last / and I will burn hotter than the sun / … / I feel so proud to be alive

But no matter how bad our fellow apes treat us, in the end, Camus was right; the only answer to our flawed condition is to live. And Heretic Pride makes the case that we should live well. After all, if living well is the best revenge, then dreaming of a better life is the most satisfying revenge fantasy.

When you’re being dragged through the streets, smile and enjoy the ride. After all, you’re living the only way you can. And the only thing worse than living authentically in a world that hates you is giving in and living a lie in that same ugly world.