The Life Of The World To Come – The Mountain Goats (October 2009)

The Life Of The World To Come

When a songwriter like John Darnielle, the greatest songwriter of our time along with Craig Finn, unveils that every song of an album he’s crafting is built around a verse form The Bible, a red flag goes off. No offense to Christianity, believe me, it’s just that the last time a prolific songwriter decided to start talking about Christianity, Bob Dylan decided to take a break from being remarkable. As someone who was familiar with only the major works of the longer-than-anyone-should-expect career of The Mountain Goats, Tallahasse and We Shall All Be Healed, I gave the album a spin. Was I listening to Christian rock? I sure wasn’t being preached to. Was I listening to some incredibly thick irony that was rather uncharacteristic of John Darnielle? No, not that either. I set out to find John Darnielle’s roots in religion.

Raised Catholic and turned atheist, just like me, John Darnielle, while not theistic, still classifies himself as religious. He goes to church every Sunday he can manage and participates in the rituals of many other religions, most notably Buddhism. For a man whose last album was titled Heretic Pride, he’s awfully tolerant. With this in mind, I listen to the album again. “Believe with your heart; confess with your lips” is being ironic, sure, but only insofar as it’s not talking about a higher power. Well, maybe it is. All you need is love, et cetera et cetera.

John arranges his music in such a fascinating way. That’s not to say that the music is incredibly dynamic, that’s not the point, but the thoughtfulness put into the repeated chorus, “I used to live here”, is astonishing given the line’s simplicity. That’s all part of a song, whose name I can’t remember thanks to my inability to remember which verse of The Bible is in my metadata, about a man visiting the home he used to live in and looking back. Staring back at a past self and not reflecting, but remembering, is a great topic for a song, and I personally can’t think of a better way to say it than “I used to live here.” Perhaps you think that’s incredibly lame to cite as my second choice of show-off lyrics, but when you listen to the song, I hope you’ll understand. Yes, that’s a “when”.

The music of the album approaches the simple beauty of 1969’s The Velvet Underground, a landmark album that dropped forty years ago, featuring songs like Candy Says, What Goes On, and Pale Blue Eyes, which never fail to stir up emotion. You could compare it to 1979’s Unknown Pleasures, an album by Joy Division whose wrecked demeanor somehow translated into a beauty that couldn’t be heard, only understood. Finally, you could compare it to Pixies’ 1990 album Bossanova, in which Black Francis told tales of crazy ex-girlfriends and made songs with sad ideas and music into sprawling beauties of optimism. I could compare it to these albums, yes, but in the end, it just ends up joining their ranks as one of those albums that people, quite simply, should think of when they try to imagine a beautiful album.

In the year of 2009, religious relations are important, especially between secularists and fundamentalists. Despite what you might think, the gay marriage debate isn’t about civil rights at this point; it’s about religion. Here we have an album in which an atheist dives into The Bible and stays down there, evoking brilliant images. What do we come out with? Are we too religious as a people? Are we losing all that’s sane in life by moving away from it? John ends up not giving us a message, but we all do have to realize what he’s demonstrated. Religion shouldn’t be about strict ethical rules, pointless tradition, and condemnation of others. As we as a people leave fundamentalism behind and become more and more secular, we need to learn what lessons we need to bring with us, and perhaps the most important is that we should never forget the importance of imagination, ambition, and storytelling. John Darnielle threw down an album in the form of a religious adventure teaching us the importance of child-like wonder. This album is the best damn album of 2009.


Published in: on September 28, 2009 at 3:53 PM  Comments (1)  

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  1. I was at a Mountain Goats concert a while ago and JD said something interesting about gay marriage. I’m paraphrasing, but:
    “I wish people who used the bible to excuse being againt gay marriage would just read the fucking book. In the bible there are so many instances of exceptions being made to traditional marriage for the sake of love.”
    He’s truly amazing.

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