The Mountain Goats The Life of the World to Come

[4AD; 2009]

Styles:  folk-rock
Others: Andrew Jackson Jihad, John Vanderslice

It wasn’t exactly baffling when notoriously eclectic songwriter John Darnielle started dropping names like Rich Mullins and Amy Grant in interviews, but it was certainly interesting. Having always drawn influences from musicians as diverse as reggae bad-boy King Yellowman and black-metal marauders Marduk, his immersion in the world of Contemporary Christian Music still struck an odd note, especially when coupled with The Life of the World to Come’s tracklist; the titles for all 12 songs are gleaned from Bible verses. But the album is far from Darnielle’s bid for a main-stage slot at Cornerstone. Instead, he uses the source material for familiar purposes, crafting folk tales of violence, breaking and entering, and general mischief, exploring the human desire for salvation and faith more than exposing the virtues of any particular religious system.

Darnielle’s characters have always grappled with belief. Last year’s Heretic Pride found a pagan protagonist pulled from his home and burned at the stake, and many of the players in The Life of the World to Come find themselves in similarly dire situations, sharing that character’s sense of otherworldly hope. "And I won’t get better/ But someday I will be free/ 'Cause I am not this body that imprisons me," the terminally ill patient of “Isaiah 45:23” sings, speaking to the transfiguring qualities of his Christianity. “Romans 10:9” speaks to the same longing for redemption, be it physical or, in the case of the song's narrator, mental: "Busy hours for joyful hearts and later maybe head out to the pharmacy/ Won’t took the medication, but it’s good to have around/ A kind and loving god won’t let my small ship run aground," the narrator sings. "If you believe with your heart and confess with your lips/ Surely you will be saved one day." The songs are composed of the same thrusts that compel non-religious people to say things like “he or she is in a better place” with concrete certainty at the funerals of loved ones. After all, how unbearable does the alternative sound?

“Psalms 40:2” rocks with the trademark Mountain Goats gallop, a road-trip of destruction featuring menacingly distorted bass and Darnielle’s chew-and-spit cadence, "drunk on the spirit and high on fumes," sleeping in "the burning fuselage of days." With the drums leading the charge, it’s an aggressive reminder that, when Darnielle gets into wild-ass street-preacher mode, he’s damn potent, singing lines like "Feel kind of bad about what we do along the way/ But not really that bad" with crazed-eye abandon. “Genesis 3:23” speaks an opposite language, a tuneful, wistful soft-rock ballad about breaking into a house the narrator once lived in. "Pictures on the mantle of no one I know," Darnielle sings over bubbling electric pianos and gently twacking drums. It’s nearly impossible to argue with Darnielle in such fine form.

It’s a shame that the album, like The Mountain Goats’ other recent efforts, can’t sustain the feeling. “1 John 4:16” finds Darnielle manning the piano, accompanied by soundtrack strings courtesy of Owen Pallett (Final Fantasy), but it come across as trite. Coupled with Darnielle’s words, it doesn’t feel sad, but manipulative. “Matthew 25:21” suffers from the same woes; its characters are sufficiently developed (and all in danger), but the melody and simple acoustic guitar remind us that we’ve heard this song before from Darnielle, and we’ve heard it in a much, much better form.

Darnielle’s lyrical focus has only grown stronger since his boom-box recording days, and at this point one would be hard-pressed to name a more evocative storyteller in indie rock. But, musically, the album suffers from the same condition of his past few records: dragging in the later half, with things becoming increasingly stagnant. But despite any sequencing issues, there are moments, like on closer “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace,” where not even the rudimentary minimalism of Darnielle’s piano playing can distract from the widescreen ambition of his lyrics. "Drive till the rain stops, keep driving," he sings, perhaps recalling the Biblical flood, or maybe just a bad night on tour. Indeed, when everything clicks, Darnielle can’t be denied, and even when there’s cause for concern, there’s always something worth taking note of.

1. 1 Samuel 15:23
2. Psalms 40:2
3. Genesis 3:23
4. Philippians 3:20-21
5. Hebrews 11:40
6. Genesis 30:3
7. Romans 10:9
8. 1 John 4:16
9. Matthew 25:21
10. Deuteronomy 2:10
11. Isaiah 45:23
12. Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace

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