The Life Of The World To Come

The Mountain Goats

4AD, 2009

http://www.themountaingoats.net/

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 10/22/2009

There are few other artists who make albums as penetrating and revelatory as John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. 2005’s The Sunset Tree was a haunting, bare-bones exploration of Darnielle’s abusive childhood, while Get Lonely, released in 2006, is one of the most excellent heartbreak albums you’ll find, free of clichés and steeped in evocative honesty. The Goats’ latest, though, moves away from autobiography and towards a wider reach, aiming to make the general just as poignant as Darnielle’s deeply personal lyrics. While he has always been concerned with religious themes, particularly forgiveness and redemption, on this disc, he names each of the twelve tracks after a different Bible verse, centering around the lessons he’s learned.

This is by no means a religious album, however. Darnielle is a lapsed Catholic (the group’s last album was called Heretic Pride), and so he tends to approach the tales of the Bible as instructive stories rather than do-or-die constructs. And while The Mountain Goats’ material has never been centered around crafting accessible chart-toppers, The Life Of The World To Come my_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 is an even thornier affair; it’s contemplative and stripped of the raw, seething energy of some of their earlier material, relying on spare, gentle arrangements – mostly fuzzy acoustic guitar, bass, and muted drums – and Darnielle’s coiled-tight, intriguingly imperfect vocals. And somehow, the music is just as intense as when he’s working his voice raw as when he’s keeping it to a whisper.

On the opening track, “1 Samuel 15:23,” Darnielle is backed by little more than a hushed acoustic guitar as he sings lines like, “My house will be for all people who have nowhere to go,” though he sounds far more ominous than welcoming as the guitars flicker nervously behind him. Like the rest of this album’s material, this song is deceptively simple, all the more jarring for its bareness, and while it won’t draw you in instantly, it’s tough to turn away from.

And not all of the disc is downbeat. “Psalms 40:2” is a battle cry, full of jittery guitars, taut drums, and Darnielle’s smoky, emotive vocals, while “Genesis 3:23” is warm and confident, the instrumentation more fleshed out and jangly as Darnielle channels Adam and Eve, describing breaking into the house he used to live in. As always, the images are uneasy but lovely (“Sit looking up at the stars outside / Like teeth in the mouth of a shark”), undoing the very notion of what “home” means once you’ve left it. 

It’s stunning how Darnielle takes each verse and crafts a modern-day story around it, taking the more general lessons and making them pierce your very heart. Perhaps most evocatively, “Matthew 25:21” depicts Darnielle flying home from tour to be with his mother-in-law as she fades away from terminal cancer; amid a quiet haze of guitars, he imagines himself “an airplane tumbling wing over wing,” and as the song trickles away to nothing, he sings, “It’s three days later when I get the call / And there’s nobody around to break my fall.”

For all its hushed contemplation, the album ends in forward-motion with “Ezekial 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace,” which belies the slow, piano-based backing with its lyrics about a positively strung-out drug addict taking a hostage and driving “to make Culiacán by sunset,” and even as the world explodes around him, he just keeps driving. And on their seventeenth disc, The Mountain Goats have done the same, crafting a beautiful album that is as sparse as it is rich, letting the silence speak volumes.

Rating: B+

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