The Mountain Goats - The Life of the World to Come
Record Label: 4AD
Release Date: October 5, 2009
John Darnielle, lead singer, songwriter, and mastermind behind The Mountain Goats, has built a 19-year career on his uncanny ability to tell stories through music. His insightful lyrics and convincing vocal delivery are imposing enough to demand immediate attention, but not righteous enough to separate him from his everyday listeners. Still, it’s hard to listen to this highly literate 42-year-old sing about everything from dashed death metal dreams to colonizing on the moon without gaining some kind of higher understanding about ordinary life.
With The Life of the World to Come, The Mountain Goats’ 17th LP, Darnielle shares “twelve hard lessons” he learned from the Bible in a way that even the staunchest atheist can relate. No, as he is sure to point out on the band’s official website, he did not have a religious awakening during the spring of 2009. In fact, the lyrics seldom mention God (or any variation of the term) at all. Rather, he crafted 12 songs about the most intimate of human emotions that stand on their own and added depth with verses from the Bible, after which each song is titled.
The album starts off slowly but surely with “1 Samuel 15:23,” as Darnielle sings, “My house will be for all people/Who have nowhere to go” over thick acoustic guitar and distant toms. A pair of standout tracks follow: “Psalms 40:2” kicks the album up a notch with biting vocals and frantic guitars while the oddly radio-friendly “Genesis 3:23” bobs up and down in a sea of electric piano and choppy guitar lines. The former beats its way through a theme of conflict between faith and impulse while the latter croons nostalgic memories of an old home. Both songs display perfectly Darnielle’s incredible ability to weave striking lyrics through unforgettable melodies, and vice-versa.
Perhaps even more admirable is his way of conveying the deepest of experiential emotions from other peoples’ shoes. In “Genesis 30:3,” Darnielle, who has never had children, sings from a father’s standpoint about a child’s first look into the world: “You only see it once and then it seals into the dawn/And then it’s gone forever.” The lone, subdued piano leads his voice through this breathtaking expedition to the depths of intrinsic human emotion and love.
The album rounds itself out with “Isaiah 45:23,” an upbeat yet undecided look at unquestioned religious devotion, and the subtly foreboding “Ezekiel 7 And the Permanent Efficacy of Grace,” the final track of the album. The piano-driven closer places a narrator in his car, ready to shoot up before the apocalypse. The album runs out its last few seconds with the narrator’s fading heartbeat as the world ends.
The Life of the World to Come does what almost every religious gathering I’ve ever experienced fails to do: it bridges the gap between God and real life. Whether the listener chooses to recognize the aforementioned “God” as an omnipotent face in the clouds or as the split-second before a newborn baby takes its first breath, John Darnielle has combined ancient religious morals with present-day issues it in such a way that is universally moving. The result is something as thought provoking as it is immediately moving; an album you’ll want to keep within easy reach for the rest of your life.