We’re all going to die one day. Everyone we love, everyone we hate, all of us will one day cease to exist, on this earth anyway. And on The Mountain Goats’ 16th album, aptly titled The Life of the World to Come, vocalist/songwriter John Darnielle doesn’t let the listener forget this, threading a universal theme of death, dying and a “what’s next?” mentality. The follow up to last year’s Heretic Pride, takes us to the Garden of Eden, to the hospital bed of a terminally ill cancer patient, and back to the days when our lost love wasn’t so lost.
Every song on The Life of the World to Come is named after a Bible scripture, minus one, but it’s not exactly a “religious” or “Christian” album, though there are conclusive undertones. Darnielle seems to almost treat the Bible as a storybook, using the aforementioned scriptures to tell a story that either directly relates or is influenced by the Old and New Testaments. And Darnielle’s vivid and detailed storytelling is something The Mountain Goats are known best for. To say Darnielle is a wonderful, elaborate storyteller is even a bit of an understatement. To say he is among the most influential and prominent storytellers in independent rock today, would be more accurate. For someone who has released an album nearly every year for as long as he has been putting out records, Darnielle proves on The Life of the World to Come that not only is he as crisp as ever, but that there is plenty more to come, because ideas aren’t as short as one would imagine.
The Life of the World to Come opens with “1 Samuel 15:23,” welcoming the listener in a way, and sets the basic acoustic/piano/vocal format for the entirety of the album. Not much more is needed, though, as Darnielle’s steadfast voice carries over most of the musical backing, and for the most part not much else is needed. “Psalms 40:2” is the exception to the uniform piano and acoustic arrangement, with a sprinkling of cymbals, driving a hard and heavy tempo over a lyrically snarled song about finding an almost safe place and turning your back on it, because everything isn’t always as it seems. “Philippians 3:20-21” and “Romans 10:9” are scattered with this exact frame of mind, both dripping with sarcasm and condescension. “1 John 4:16” is melancholy and a sense of despair encompasses the song and with lyrics like “In the holding tank I built for myself it’s feeding time/ And I start to feel afraid ’cause I’m the last one left in line,” over a softly strummed piano, it’s easy to feel the narrator’s sense of hopelessness. It doesn’t end on that note though, but rather with the cryptic line “But I know you’re thinking of me ’cause it’s just about to rain/ So I wont be afraid of anything ever again,” which presents comfort in the fact that we’re never really alone, no matter how much we think we are.
The album standout “Matthew 25:21” is, simply put, heartbreaking, even more so when you discover it was based on Darnielle’s experience and relationship with his mother-in-law. It’s a song that, long after I clicked “stop,” resonated in my head all day. Darinelle sings over a gentle acoustic beat about the anguish he felt watching his loved one pass after a long bout with cancer and the effect it had on him. It’s full of awe-inspiring lyrics, most particularly the last lines of the song, “And you were a presence full of light upon this earth/ And I am a witness to your life and to it’s worth/ It’s three days later when I get the call/ And there’s nobody around to break my fall.” On the last song “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace” with the disquiet of the piano, Darinelle takes us on one last voyage, a car ride with an unknown destination ending with a singular heartbeat.
The Life of the World to Come is an superb accomplishment, and one of The Mountain Goats’ best to date. By building a record based on the basic framework of singular scriptures, Darnielle & co. have created something diverse, evocative and, plainly put, quite wonderful. No matter one’s religious persuasion, this album has the potential for broad appeal, as The Mountain Goats provoke their listeners to think much deeper into and beyond the songs’ source material.
MP3: “Genesis 3:23”