Review Summary: Another year, another Mountain Goats album, and another strong contender for folk album of the year.
Another year, another Mountain Goats album. The constantly metamorphosing folk project of singer/songwriter John Darnielle, The Life of the World to Come is their 17th album in 18 years, an impressive number for any band, much less one man. Coming a little over a year and a half after 2008’s excellent Heretic Pride, Life features Darnielle turning to that massive old tome which has fascinated and ensnared many a bard before him: the Bible. A concept album of sort, each title in this twelve-song set is named after a particular verse relating, in one way or another, to the intensely personal, highly literate tales that have become the Mountain Goats’ hallmark.
But lest you think Darnielle has become Christian rock’s newest poet, consider that the Mountain Goats have always worked their best magic under practically hymnal conditions, intertwining Darnielle’s heartbreakingly honest, slice-of-life lyrics and colorful metaphors with subtle instrumentation and mellow folk. Taking up where 2005’s Get Lonely left off and eschewing the fleshed-out (for the Goats, anyways) production of Heretic Pride, this latest nails just what makes the Mountain Goats such a long-lived project in a world that really doesn’t reward intelligent, thoughtful songwriting. From the somber strumming of opener “1 Samuel 15:23” to the soft boil of dark closer “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace,” Darnielle uses the templates of these passages to reflect on his own life experiences, to meditate on the struggles and triumphs that mankind goes through every day and, in doing so, creates an album that strikes right at the core of the human condition.
This may sound unbearably pompous to strangers of Darnielle’s work, but it’s his straightforward way of doing things and imitable way with words that immediately disarm. After you’ve heard his fragile voice crack without any sense of self-consciousness on the frantic build-up of “Psalms 40:2” or heard his tragic recollection of a loved one’s cancer and death on the poignant “Matthew 25:21,” it becomes obvious that Darnielle remains one of (if not the) best songwriters of his generation. The understated production here serves only to reinforce the strength of the words at the forefront, as the Life of the World to Come is almost brazen in its stylistic singularity, maintaining the same basic mix throughout of acoustic guitar, a heavy dose of piano, and some string and orchestra flourishes courtesy of Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett. This leaves Darnielle and his wavering, all-too-imperfect vocals to sink or swim on their own. And whether he’s singing an earnest tale of love on “Genesis 30:3” or narrating the thoughts of a lonely prisoner in “1 John 4:16,” Darnielle is more than capable of keeping himself afloat.
To be fair, the Mountain Goats shtick does get tired over the course of the album, particularly the sobering stretch of tunes that begins with the aforementioned “1 John 4:16” and continues through “Deuteronomy 2:10.” The similar feel of the down tempo tunes tends to blend into one each other, making it unfortunately difficult to tell the songs apart from each other, at least musically. Nor is Darnielle committed to creating a record that will appeal to the casual listener; The Life of the World to Come is an album in the truest sense, with perhaps only “Genesis 3:23” and “Philippians 3:20-21,” with their comparatively lively pop structures, making a case for single-worthy status.
Nevertheless, what Darnielle does best is write songs that can resonate with anybody, no matter their musical disposition, and in that respect Life is a tremendous success. With some of his most naked writing in years focused by the narrative framework of the Bible and a return to the sparse accompaniment that characterized their earlier works, Darnielle and company have again created a strong contender for folk record of the year.