John Darnielle, like, say, Billy Childish or Will Oldham, never throws away an idea, even if it takes him into uncomfortable spiritual waters. That kind of unrestrained poetic daring has served all three well.
The Mountain Goats is Darnielle’s mostly solo venture; on The Life of The World To Come he’s working with his more or less stable band lineup of Jon Wurster and Peter Hughes, as well as arranger Owen Pallett and producers John Congleton and Scott Solter. The album is enigmatic and often hard to pin down, each song with a Bible verse for a title. Hardly orthodox but also not ironic, these songs share with the Psalms the kind of brutally honest take on life’s little stinging arrows, some we can handle, others we can’t.
Darnielle himself described The Life as “12 hard lessons that the Bible taught you.” I don’t think the Bible so much taught these life lessons as provided a mythic backdrop for navigating through them, mythic in the sense that we always make our lives mythic in one way or the other, especially when trying to move through hurt, grief, loss, gain or insight.
A low buzz dominates these songs, a kind of anti-pop in which the strings echo mournfully. Occasionally, as on “Genesis 3: 23,” the beat kicks up a bit, but only barely. Clearly the Mountain Goats are brooding, and kind of enjoying the import of it all.
Even without the teasing titles, “Hebrews 11:40,” “Pslams 40:2,” and “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace” are plaintive, heartrending, and enigmatic enough to warrant multiple listens. Darnielle’s delivery is laconic, giving little away in terms of resolution. The lyrics drive this record, but they don’t lead to any concrete solutions. They linger, humanely, above the topic at hand.
The Mountain Goats take a bite out of some of the deeper veins of experience and wisdom, but The Life of The World To Come does not offer answers. This is a record not so much crying in the wilderness, but one recognizing that its characters are in that wilderness.