4AD, 2009

John Darnielle has made a career out of mythologizing the mundane, penning details so poignant they trap you in the reality of his stories. His source material has ranged from fictional to confessional, but no matter the subject, Darnielle has confronted it with honesty, wit, and passion. On The Life of the World to Come, Darnielle’s inspiration is as ancient as Western civilization. The album blends fact and fiction, framing each song in terms of a verse taken from the world’s best selling and most divisive book — the Bible.

Anyone who expected something overwrought overlooked Darnielle’s subtlety. Slow and spare opener “1 Samuel 15:23” has the whispered awe of poetry. It’s full of hushed wonder, and nothing could be farther from preachy. Most of the album, in fact, only seems religious if you look at the song titles. The few times God is mentioned directly, the references are soft-spoken and beautiful. “If you will believe in your heart/And confess with your lips/Surely you will be saved one day,” goes the chorus in “Romans 10:9.” Paraphrased from the titular verse, this line is, in the context of the song’s optimistically tragic storyline, a breath of hope, whether you take it as religious or not.

Elsewhere, the titles simply act as epigraphs, adding depth and meaning to songs that stand up fine on their own. “Genesis 3:23” is about that feeling you get returning to somewhere you once lived — “Touch nothing, move nothing, stand still/Keep my ears open for cars/See how the people here live now/Hope that they’re better than I was.” The lyrics are stark, Bible-less poetry. But consider the verse: “So the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to work the ground from which he had been taken” (New International Version). The terrestrial is connected to the divine — leaving home equated with leaving Eden. The Bible certainly does not limit the album: topics range from burglary to cancer to endangered species. The Life of the World to Come is not a series of sermons; it’s a series of stories, like any other Mountain Goats album, where the divine happens to, at least for Darnielle, brush against reality.

The album is quiet, but not the band’s quietest: a definite change from the occasionally raucous Hereitc Pride, but a few turns of the knob louder than Get Lonely. Longtime fans may say Darnielle’s getting soft as he ages, moving farther and farther from the acoustic power chords of the boom box days. Though “Pslams 40:2” is a good counterargument, this may be generally true. Piano monopolizes much of the album, and Owen Pallett’s string arrangements lend it a smoothness and grace rarely hinted at previously. But try and see this as a new facet of the Mountain Goats, a refreshing change for a band criticised for its musical stagnancy as often as it is praised for its lyrical genius. The interplay of the band, the same trio as on Heretic Pride, is flawless: without a history lesson, there’d be no way to know the Mountain Goats’ one-man-and-a-guitar origins.

Though Darnielle’s sung extensively in the past of violence and vagabonds, pre-release murmurs indicate this may be the Mountain Goats’ most controversial album yet. If the religious aspect is going to bug you that much, I’d advise you to just ignore the song titles. This is a stunningly gorgeous album, and it’s not worth missing over an aversion to religion. But if you’re willing to brave or even embrace this component, look up the verses as you listen, experiment with different translations, and enjoy watching new meanings bloom. Believer or not, anyone can appreciate beauty.