Looking toward Biblical passages as inspiration and titles for your songs often rings a death knell for singer/songwriters who reign in the musical fringe sectors of pop, folk, rock and country -- i.e. the "alt" world. Even Bob Dylan was initially dismissed for his "Christian" recordings, casting a shadow on the overlooked Slow Train Coming. Yet The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle has made an entire album consisting of songs citing a specific Biblical passage for each title on his 16th release, The Life of the World to Come.
Darnielle is a master storyteller whose songs are often inhabited by misfit characters who are lost, misguided and enraged. His songs for The Life of the World to Come are often personifications -- first person narratives of struggles with loss, grief, death and spirit, acting as provocative interpretations of each Biblically-titled song. Darnielle weaves brilliant stories and poetic lines, often ignoring the standard verse/chorus set-up. The musical arrangements are spare, with drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Peter Hughes accompanying Darnielle's vocals, guitar and piano with excellent subtle touches.
It's not something entirely new for Darnielle to borrow from the Bible: His previous release titled Heretic Pride and his most recent EP, Satanic Messiah, show the songwriter well on his way into exploring a deeper spiritual side without losing his tone, perspective and narratives. He never comes off preachy or didactic.
In "Psalms 40:2," with Wurster's drums propelling the song's rising tension, Darnielle sings, "We inhale the frozen air./ Lord, send me a mechanic/ if I am beyond repair." It's an interesting contemporary spin on the rise of David (literally out of the muck) to be King. "Genesis 3:23" parallels a story of the narrator breaking into his former home, now inhabited by someone else, with the story of Adam and Eve getting tossed out of Eden. Darnielle is presenting an odd story that is closer kin to a writer like Raymond Carver or Denis Johnson -- intriguing, brief and brilliant.
The album ends on a dark note, one that Darnielle's narratives often explore, with "Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace." Yep, it's a passage of wrath, fury, destruction and judgment. In contrast, Darnielle spins a story of a narrator grabbing a car and "driving until the rain stops, keep driving." Then comes the eerie line, "I had his arms tied up./ We were together all day." Is he talking about Jesus? Is the driver some type of Roman soldier? Darnielle leaves that question open, like a seasoned writer would.
The Life of the World to Come is perhaps Darnielle's most personal Mountain Goats release to date. He has successfully mapped out an intricate odyssey rooted in exploration of the spirit using a number of narratives and metaphors. The result is provocative, engaging and brave.