America's best currently working songwriter tackles the Bible with surprisingly and gratifyingly diverse results.
If you’re familiar with John Darnielle (and by “John Darnielle” I mean “the Mountain Goats”, no offence to Peter Hughes or Jon Wurster or anyone else) it probably won’t seem odd that the album The Life of the World to Come reminds me of is 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed. The latter, of course, is a song cycle about tweakers, addiction, death, decay, self-loathing, the inexorable force of a junkie’s deceit, and possibly Belgium, and the former is, in Darnielle’s own words, “twelve hard lessons the Bible taught me, kind of.” Not that he’s suddenly had a conversion experience (Darnielle is still as religious as he ever was; that is, somewhat so, but unconventionally), but each song here is named after a Biblical verse or verses, except for the closing “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace”, which takes on a whole book and a description.
Certainly there’s more open love and affection to be found here than on We Shall All Be Healed, but one of the reasons Darnielle is the best American songwriter currently working is that he refuses to settle for the easy emotional beats in whatever story he’s telling. He uncovers the same desperation, doubt, and grace in Biblical narratives that he did in a squalid, shut-in house of meth addicts, because people in Darnielle’s songs, whether loving or hateful or outright psychotic, are always first and foremost human. This is a guy who includes some of his funniest, most life-affirming moments on the album that tells the story of his difficult teen years and physically abusive stepfather (The Sunset Tree), who hides some of his most stirring songs about hopeless romantic devotion on a record about an alcoholic couple who move to Florida to drown themselves in booze (Tallahassee), who made a breakup album so painfully on point that half of his audience don’t seem to be able to take it (2006’s underrated Get Lonely), who managed to turn a closing chant of “Hail Satan!” into a perversely joyous celebration of the individual’s eventual victory against the forces of dumb institutional repression (“The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” off of All Hail West Texas). He’s almost monstrously good, and if 2008’s slight but enjoyable Heretic Pride suffered from anything, it was that Darnielle seems to work best when he’s got some sort of organizing principle to work with.
The Bible is a doozey of an organizing principle, and it’s to Wurster and Hughes’ credit as well as Darnielle’s (and Owen Pallett’s, who plays on some songs and contributes string arrangements) that the songs here work as well as they do before you hit BibleGateway to look up what each song is ‘about’. And while Darnielle has allowed himself to range freely in the subject matter, characters, emotions and even settings of these songs The Life of the World to Come is probably the Mountain Goats’ most cohesive and accomplished album to date, musically speaking.
You get the impression sometimes that the fans that lament over the band’s studio albums and their relative polish just want the old blood-and-boombox-thunder Darnielle all the time. And yeah, he was great, but he was also in full flourish a decade or more ago. The low fidelity Mountain Goats were prolific enough that it’s not as if there’s a lack of material for people who don’t want to move on, and for those who do, well, the gorgeousness of the strings on “1 John 4:16” or “Hebrews 11:40”, the way the piano and almost ambient cymbals build tension in “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace”, the subtle guitar work on “Philippians 3:20-21” -- these are reward enough. Darnielle is easily and gracefully into what I guess we have to call the mature phase of his career now, and it’s such a natural fit for his new songs that I actually can’t imagine The Life of the World to Come working if reduced just to Darnielle’s old Wedding-Present-gone-folk guitar and full holler. If the emotional brother of this record in the Mountain Goats’ discography is We Shall All Be Healed, then its closest sonic relative is Get Lonely, although things are never quite as hushed and claustrophobic as that record -- a full-length exploration of the feeling of wanting to jump out of your own skin -- always was.
And of course, The Life of the World to Come is also very much its own beast. While the songs can happily stand on their own, Darnielle is a clever enough writer that all of them gain some added insight or impact when you look up the title reference (although I’d recommend doing so once you’ve already played the record a few times). Sometimes it’s just a little bit more of a gut-punch -- listening to “Matthew 25:21”’s devastating tale of watching someone you love die from cancer (and knowing that it was Darnielle’s mother-in-law) is harrowing enough, but when you turn to the Bible and see “His lord said unto him, `Well done, thou good and faithful servant. Thou hast been faithful over a few things; I will make thee ruler over many things. Enter thou into the joy of thy lord,'” it’s hard not to be moved regardless of religious conviction. Darnielle occasionally includes lines from the Bible in the songs, particularly in the surging “Psalms 40:2” (which could work as Christian rock if Darnielle didn’t sing “He has fixed his sign in the sky / He has raised me from the pit and set me high” with such clenched-teeth, poisonous intensity), but mostly he just uses them as beginnings, sometimes with surprising results.
The lovely “Genesis 30:3,” for example is one of two love songs here that are to my mind Darnielle’s most effective to date. Nothing against “Going to Georgia” (“The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway / Is that it’s you and that you’re standing in the doorway!“) and it’s kin, but whereas Darnielle has always been great at the precise feeling of that first flush of attraction/love/lust and the way love makes you crazy and then persists through divorce, hate and conflict, the way he sings “I will do what you ask me to do / Because of how I feel about you” on “Genesis 30:3” evokes a completely different and arguably deeper kind of love. When you look the verse up and see that it’s about a woman who asks her maid to bear children for her so she can have a family, it only makes the song richer (only partly because I can’t decide if it’s the wife or the maid, or even the husband, who’s singing).
“1 John 4:16”, meanwhile, has a more overt Biblical verse attached (“And we have known and believed the love that God hath for us. God is love, and he that dwelleth in love dwelleth in God, and God in him.”), but there’s nothing in the song’s melancholy and fearful self-doubt to suggest love until Darnielle sings “And someone leads the beast in on its chain / But I know you’re thinking of me, ‘cause it’s just about to rain”. The center of “1 John 4:16” ranks with the most striking moments of the Mountain Goats’ entire discography, and like much of Darnielle’s best work, it marries evocative but unexplained imagery to an emotional impact that’s precise but ineffable. By which I mean: I find the song immensely moving and it touches on a very real and specific kind of emotion I’ve felt before and will again, but I’ll be damned if I can tell you what its name is.
Just as on We Shall All Be Healed, here Darnielle sings to and about prisoners, fanatics, lost sheep, lovers, supplicants, tyrants, and good people. What makes The Life of the World to Come one of 2009’s best albums, and the Mountain Goats’ studio albums maybe the single greatest second act in modern American rock/indie/whatever music, is that he never assumes those groups are, at the heart of it all, different from each other or less deserving of our attention and compassion.