Considering how prolific he is with his studio albums, it’s surprising how many quality rarities John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats drops. Recent releases like Black Pear Tree and Moon Colony Bloodbath saw some of his best songs of the decade, yet were relegated to limited edition, tour-only, vinyl-only releases. Obtaining these items is a rush--it’s like being in on a wonderful, beautiful, secret truth--but losing out can be maddening.
I’m glad I reserved a copy of The Life of the World to Come on DVD. Originally screened on a brief press tour, it finally saw a physical release for Record Store Day April 17. Limited to 1,500 copies, the film features Darnielle playing songs from last year’s album of the same name on piano or guitar, with the occasional supporting vocal from former TMG bassist/vocalist Rachel Ware. I already own the album on CD and limited edition purple vinyl (74 of 777). I declared it the best album of 2009. I fall under the designation “superfan” and am quite stoked on watching TMG Classic perform in such an intimate setting.
But you don’t need to know the significance of the venue (Pomona College, where Darnielle had his first piano recital as a wee lad). Nor do you need to know the significance of Ware’s return. Heck, you don’t even need to know the tracks or the Bible passages they reference or that the first song, “Enoch 18:14,” isn’t even on the album. Sure, it helps, but it’s not completely necessary.
Like the best concert films, The Life of the World to Come succeeds by avoiding the genre’s pitfalls (delusions of grandeur, bad audio). Credit for that goes to director Rian Johnson (Brick) and his crew. They filmed two takes for each song using a simple setup: single portable camera with a dolly for quick movements when needed. Yet the crew captures numerous special moments--that grin when Darnielle starts getting into “Enoch 18:14,” or the way his voice quavers only on his ode to his deceased mother-in-law, “Matthew 25:21.” There are mistakes, but none of them derail the songs. If anything, they enhance the performances.
Supplementing the film is footage of a Q-and-A from Darnielle and Johnson’s press tour, as well as extensive liner notes. Both get funny and/or cryptic at times, as Darnielle is wont to do, but they’re appreciated. My only complaints against the film are minimal--I wish the DVD’s release was wider, and I wish it lasted longer than is probably reasonable on my part. Ninety minutes is a decent running time. Originally used for promotional purposes, Life affirms that the Mountain Goats’ songs work even when stripped to their barest bits, and in doing so stands up as a companion to and independent entity from last year’s album.