Not every band would follow an album titled Heretic Pride with a collection of songs meditating on death and spirituality called Life of the World to Come. However, over 17 albums by The Mountain Goats, led by singer-songwriter John Darnielle, have specialized in confounding expectations. Since 2002’s Tallahassee, the band has crafted a series of concept albums examining themes ranging from broken relationships to childhood trauma.
World to Come takes its title from the closing words of Christianity’s Nicene Creed (“We look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come”). Each track in the 12-song cycle takes its name from a biblical verse that either inspired it, or relates to the song in some way. The album is a response to losses experienced by Darnielle in the two year prior to its release. A press release accompanying the album notes, “John started … turning to old religious texts … and trying to take comfort in creeds and prayers he can’t wholly buy into.”
That tension runs throughout the album. The result is a work awash in biblical and spiritual imagery, as well as the more earthbound subjects of illness and death.
“My house will be for all people who have nowhere to go,” Darnielle sings on the musically sparse album opener “1 Samuel 15:23”; but he doesn’t sound very convinced. Likewise, is his tentative singing of, “safe in his arms,” on the lilting, acoustic guitar-strewn “Philippians 3:20-21”.
“Psalm 40:2” is an angry cry that directly references its titular verse, where the psalmist wrote, “he lifted me out of the slimy pit … he set my feet on a rock,” which Darnielle sings, followed by, “he has raised me from the pit and set me on high.” The song’s kinetic drumming and the singer’s growling vocals propel the song to an urgent climax.
At times, Darnielle seems to find comfort in the texts he references. He sings with some confidence on “Genesis 3:30”, “I feel certain I’m going to rise again. If not by faith, then by the sword, I’m going to be restored.” On “Genesis 3:23”, he takes up the role of the expelled Adam and Eve, wistfully singing the refrain, “I used to live here.” And on “Romans 10:9”, he echoes the words of St. Paul, singing, “if you believe in your heart and confess with your lips, surely you will be saved one day.”
However, the singer returns again and again to images of life slipping away. “Matthew 25:21” deals directly with death, as strummed guitar accompanies stream-of-consciousness lyrics about cancer, chemotherapy, and death (“It’s three days later when I get the call and there’s nobody around to break my fall.”).
On the powerful, haunting album closer “Ezekiel 7” mournful piano and an opening that briefly echoes “Behold the Lamb of God”, from Handel’s Messiah, accompany the lyrics, “drive till the rain stops, keep driving.” The song ends on the sound of a fading heartbeat, and we’re left to wonder where that drive will end.
With The Life of the World to Come, The Mountain Goats have produced an album of startling poignancy and piercing intimacy, a song cycle that can easily take its place alongside the band’s best work.
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