Three tracks into The Life of the World to Come, the new album from The Mountain Goats, and you may be wondering where exactly it is that songwriter John Darnielle is taking us. Over the course of fifteen full length LPs (The Life of the World to Come being the sixteenth overall and the sixth since signing to label 4AD and moving away from the ultra lo-fi aesthetic of early releases to a more polished studio sound) Darnielle has explored issues ranging from drug addiction to domestic abuse, occasionally from an autobiographical perspective, and has proven to be consistently engaging and prolific in his efforts. While previous album Heretic Pride lacked a strong overarching theme, but was still a great album, Darnielle has opted to place focus on faith this time, or more specifically Christianity (although it is certainly not an album written about the Bible).
Heretic Pride opened with the immediately likeable and rousing “Sax Rohmer #1,” whereas here the listener is treated with the brooding and sparse “1 Samuel 15:23” where Darnielle embodies the character of a crystal healer who believes he is helping people with his supposed healing powers while selling self-help tapes and sewing cloaks. Each song on the album is named after a Bible verse which somehow relates to it and in this instance the chosen passage reflects judgement on the character within the song for rejecting the word of God. Rather than preaching the Bible Darnielle juxtaposes the fictional and autobiographical narratives within his songs with Biblical references in a variety of ways that add extra depth to his characters and narratives; he is not trying to convert people to Christianity, nor is he entirely challenging the Christian faith, he is simply writing songs the way that he always has but with an emphasis on religion or faith as an overarching theme or reference.
The second track is a raucous one compared to the muted opener, recalling the wild strumming and wailing evident in Darnielle’s earlier work, and it’s oddly followed by the most radio-friendly pop song on the album, “Philippians 3:20-21,” which could have just as easily appeared on Heretic Pride. The extreme variation in style of these first three songs proves to be rather jarring, but thereafter the album settles into a predominantly down-tempo and introspective balladry that tends to favour piano and the violin arrangements of Owen Pallett (Arcade Fire/Final Fantasy) over Darnielle’s distinctly rough guitar playing. This places the album in a similar category to his low-key and greatly underrated 2002 effort Tallahassee and the more recent Get Lonely, which may indicate that it won’t be quite as instantly well-received as its predecessor.
Darnielle has made a surprising album, choosing not to pursue the more commercial and accessible pop-potential that marked his last LP while focusing on a theme that may split fan opinions, but regardless of expectations the fact is that there are songs here that will sit comfortably alongside some of his most beautiful and subtle work ("Genesis 30:3" is an instant classic, and "1 John 4:16" is similarly gorgeous). On “Matthew 25:21” Darnielle describes the day he left his tour to visit his dying mother-in-law in hospital, and it is surely one of the most raw and affecting songs he has written, reminding of his ability to convey complicated human emotions through bold and vivid imagery. The album also ends with one of the darkest Mountain Goats songs ever, “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace,” which features a particularly haunting piano arrangement that glides over ominous bass drones with lyrics that depict the journey of a murdering drug addict who is driving to Mexico through a seemingly apocalyptic storm. The Life of the World to Come is a mature and complex album by an incredibly talented songwriter who doesn’t seem to be running out of steam any time soon. God bless you John Darnielle.
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