By Mark Traphagen on October 8, 2009
An old piece of folk wisdom says that if you don’t want to offend, there are two topics you never mention in polite company: politics and religion. Rock music has never much worried about polite company, and giving offense is often its raison d’etre. However, historically rock has far more often tread on the toes of politics than religion. The Mountain Goats’ The Life of the World to Come steps boldly over the religion line, but to engage rather than offend.
Goats founder, leader, and sometimes only member John Darnielle–wild-eyed, metaphorically-gifted, demonically frenetic onstage–chose for this album to write a cycle of songs, every one of which has as its title a passage from the Bible.
Darnielle has had a lifetime love affair with the Bible, even though he doesn’t believe it to be of divine origin. As a fifth-year seminarian I had a couple of opportunities to sit down with John and talk faith and religion. Actually, a talk with John Darnielle can never be confined to one topic. His fertile and far-reaching mind quickly links together Christianity to sociology to poetry to neuroscience to boxing. (Yes, boxing. Darnielle is as passionate about pugilistic sports like boxing and hockey as he is about music.)
One of the lasting impressions I retain from those chats was his almost encyclopedic knowledge of the Bible. I shouldn’t have been surprised; many times listening to his older recordings I was delighted and surprised by sometimes very obscure allusions to biblical stories and themes. They can crop up in the most unexpected places. For example, in his song “This Year” he uses the line “there will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year” to evoke the wild hope of a 17 year old dreaming of escape from his dysfunctional home.Though The Life of the World to Come‘s songs all have Bible passage titles, this is not an album about the Bible, nor is it particularly religious–but in my view it is very much about faith. There is a meta-narrative that runs through Darnielle’s mega-prolific songwriting over the years. His songs are often about people at the end of their ropes–scratch that, people who have set fire to the very rope they dangle from over the precipice. And yet, it is at that bottoming out that his characters find a strange, inexplicable hope.
In his interview on Stephen Colbert’s Colbert Report (video below), Colbert read back to Darnielle some of his bleaker lyrics. Darnielle responded, “To me any scene that is tending toward that moment of absolute desolation, and it sounds like something you would say when you’re lying to somebody–but it can’t go anywhere but up from there…take it all the way down to the bottom so you can go, ‘Hey, what can you do to me now?'”
The new album uses the titular Bible passages as the merest inspiration, a canvas upon which Darnielle paints very contemporary–yet timeless–portraits of grief, despair, resignation…and inexplicable faith, hope, and love. An example of this is the bouncy “Genesis 3:23” in which the original verse (“therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken”) provides a proper motif for a more contemporary exile story of a man who breaks into the house where he grew up to confront the ghosts he has carried with him since he left.
Break the lock on my own garden gate
When I get home after dark
Sit looking up at the stars outside
Like teeth in the mouth of a shark
In The Life of the World to Come John Darnielle is at the peak of both his songwriting and performing powers. From the frantic 40-miles-per-hour-over-the-limit thrash of “Psalm 40:2” (video below) to the fragile-as-a-new-spider-web intimacy of “Ezekiel 7 (and the permanent efficacy of grace),” these songs reflect the full range of Mountain Goat music–and that is a wide range to cover. Yet the production here is minimal–just enough and not an ounce more. A few songs are just John and guitar or piano.
The album’s opening song (“1 Samuel 15:23”) pays tribute in its opening seconds to Darnielle’s fabled lo-fi origins (for years his albums were recorded on a cheap boom box and released on cassette tape). Listening with earphones the first thing you hear is John settling on his seat and his fingers dragging up the guitar strings into position for the first chord. Longtime Mountain Goat listeners will smile for a moment, remembering the grind of the Panasonic boombox motor that used to begin nearly every recorded song.
The Bible is a treasure house (sometimes a horror house) of the seeds of every imaginable human plot. Over the course of this album, Darnielle and fellow Goats Peter Hughes (bass) and Jon Wurster (percussion) take us on a journey through a good number of those. We encounter untimely death, exile, alienation, sickness, misunderstanding. But Darnielle’s warbly-nasal voice, the intense intimacy of his inflections, the way he brings each word from his mouth as if it were from a scroll sweet as honey (Ezekiel 3:3) calls us to resurrection. to rise phoenix-like from the ashes of our own lives.
To come fully under John Darnielle’s prophetic spell, you must see and hear him perform his songs live. He embodies his songs, and sometimes it is the body language and facial expressions that tell you what the real message is beneath the words of hurt and despair. Watch the video below of The Mountain Goats performing “Psalm 40:2.” The music and the words scream desperation: a frantic flight from who-knows-what to who-knows-where. But watch Darnielle’s face, his body. There is joy inexpressible when we learn to sing and dance right on top of our own graves. There will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem next year.
John Darnielle interviewed by Stephen Colbert – Oct. 6, 2009
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
“Psalm 40:2” as performed on The Colbert Report, Oct. 6, 2009
|The Colbert Report||Mon – Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c|
|The Mountain Goats – Psalms 40:2|
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