In spite of his increasingly personal songwriting in the last four years or so, John Darnielle (singer, songwriter and the core of folk-rock masters the Mountain Goats) has always spoiled his fans. Last year he dropped one of the best albums (Heretic Pride) and two EPs (Black Pear Tree EP, with Kaki King, and Satanic Messiah) of 2008; this year he repeats the trick with Moon Colony Bloodbath (a tour-only split EP with John Vanderslice) and The Life of the World to Come, yet another emotionally affecting bit of storytelling. It’s a somber downturn after the relatively raucous Heretic Pride; much as the downtrodden Get Lonely followed the defiant The Sunset Tree. Granted, about half of the songs could have been on Pride (no surprise there, as bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster return). But it’s the sparser material, like “Matthew 25:21” or “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace,” that leaves the bigger impression.
Oh yeah, The Life of the World to Come is also a loose concept album about faith and the Bible. The titles are all Bible passages and the songs are stories that react creatively to those passages to varying degrees. With a few exceptions (the chorus to “Roman 10:9” quotes that very section), reading the Old and New Testament adds a rewarding but not completely essential dimension to the work. It’s not a Christian album, unless you want to compare it to, say, Bob Dylan’s Slow Train Coming. In short, atheists can like this album too, even though, again, “Roman 10:9” will probably irk them.
That said, the first time I listened to the record, I sat down with my girlfriend, cracked open her copy of the New Living Translation of the Bible and read the passages referenced. It was profound. And it got me thinking about religion for the first time in years. See, I am a product of a good Christian education. I come from a Catholic family. But I haven’t believed in the dogma in years. After the priest sexual abuse scandal and a series of pro-Iraq War stances from American clergy members, if they took any stance at all (looking at you, Catholic Standard & Times), a Kairos trip, of all things, spurred me to walk away from the Church. But here’s the thing: Catholicism stayed with me. Whether it’s Irish guilt, or the fact that my friends give me weird looks for knowing about things like the Beatitudes or my feast day or just getting pissed off whenever people stereotype the religious as intolerant, there’s still this ever-so-slight division between people who have seen David Haas live and people who haven’t.
So if you’re a Recovering Christian, or ya know, just a regular God-fearing, practicing one, The Life of the World to Come might mean a little more. Or maybe just something different. See, it helps to know that Genesis 3:23 says, “So the LORD God banished Adam and his wife from the Garden of Eden, and he sent Adam out to cultivate the ground from which he had been made.” Darnielle relates that excerpt to breaking into an old home of his. “Touch nothing, move nothing, stand still / Keep my ears open for cars,” he says. “See how the people here live now / Hope that they’re better at it than I was / I used to live here.” But that doesn't mean a public school kid won’t get it. The song taps into a more universal theme -- longing for a past, even if it really wasn’t that great.
The Life of the World to Come manages to somehow be one of Darnielle’s most appealing yet difficult records. Mountain Goats fans of all creeds get something to love. Solo vs. full band; bombastic vs. quiet; personal vs. short story; there’s something for everyone. Anyone who’s seen TMG live knows that silence is Darnielle’s most effective way of grabbing people’s attention, and the same holds true for the quiet “1 Samuel 15:23.” Then the record explodes on “Psalms 40:2.” Darnielle always tries to include a few rockers on his albums, and “Psalms 40:2” is definitely one of them. He howls about God raising him from the pit, but it’s more classic rock ‘n’ roll than anything else. It’s passionate and spiritual and alive.
But as much as I love rock-Darnielle (“HAIL SATAN!”), the songs that grab me more are the desperate, quiet ones, specifically “Matthew 25:21” and “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace.” “Matthew” is about his mother-in-law, who died of cancer. Over acoustic guitar, Darnielle talks about trying to brace himself to say goodbye. “But you can’t brace yourself when the time comes,” he says. “You just have to roll with the blast.” Darnielle references the Parable of the Loaned Money (“The master was full of praise. ‘Well done, my good and faithful servant. You have been faithful in handling this small amount, so now I will give you many more responsibilities. Let’s celebrate together!’”) in rejoicing her life (“And you were a presence full of light upon this earth / and I am a witness to your life and to its worth,” he sings). It’s gripping, and if you’ve ever had to say goodbye before you were ready, or even if you were ready, this song will hit hard. That’s where the Gospel according to Matthew comes in handy, though. The parable tells us that those who live to the fullest, who use their talents and are a light to others, will live forever in the Kingdom of Heaven. Darnielle could’ve easily gone for a more melodramatic quote (I accidentally read Matthew 24:21’s “For that will be a time of greater horror than anything the world has ever seen or will ever see again.” Jesus is talking about Armageddon, but out of context, it’s a damn depressing line about death). He instead adds a layer of hope, making it that much heavier. A twin to the song, “Isaiah 45:23” takes the perspective of a patient. “And I won't get better / but some day I'll be free / I am not this body that imprisons me” goes the chorus.
“Matthew 25:21” is rife with details; “Ezekiel 7,” not so much. It’s a poignant closer, as Darnielle sparingly talks about driving: “Flip on the high stakes radio / Try to sing the words right / Drive ’til the rain stops / Keep driving.” The lone hard detail -- “I had his arms tied up behind him / We were together all day / Maybe make Culiacan by sunset / Try to, anyway” – sets the song in Mexico. Maybe it’s drug-related and maybe it’s not. But given that Ezekiel’s seventh chapter is about the end of the world, there’s a sense of dread hanging over an already sad song. “No hope remains, for I will unleash my anger against you,” and all that.
Sorry about the length of this article. Here’s a summary for you: The Life of the World to Come isn't about God, but it is. You don’t have to read the Bible to get it, but you should. It is unquestionably the most emotionally powerful record of 2009. You know how your favorite albums are attached to certain moments? Your first kiss and your worst fight and just that one night when you and your friends drove around listening to music and it didn't mean much at the time but now it means everything? The Life of the World to Come does that for my entire life. It wasn't playing when my grandmother died or the first time I realized I was in love or during any of my precious, stupid formative years. And yet now, it makes me feel everything. It’s not Darnielle's most personal album compared to The Sunset Tree or Get Lonely, or his best compared to All Hail West Texas, but it is.
The record is streaming on colbertnation.com right now, leading up to Darnielle’s Oct. 6 appearance on the show. I suggest you try it.