The Life of the World to Come‘s “Psalms 40:2,” in which a gang of human highway flares break into a Missouri chapel and leave it in ruin, is not the first song about B&Es that the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle has written. That honor probably goes to 1995’s “The Recognition Scene,” about a doomed couple ransacking a candy store. Nor is Life‘s biblical conceit—”12 hard lessons” whose titles are all encoded in chapter and verse—entirely new. Nothing for Juice‘s “I Corinthians 13:8-10” (“Love never fails . . . when perfection comes, the imperfect disappears”) made a palace out of a World War II 1939 attic hideout, while 2002’s “Genesis 19:1-2” equated the wreckage of Sodom and Gomorrah to a life’s worth of unfulfilled romance.
As concepts go, Life‘s ambition is actually modest compared to most of the Mountain Goats’ output this decade: Tallahassee‘s “Alpha Couple” barely left their burial of a house, while the two records that followed it—We Shall All Be Healed (2004) and The Sunset Tree (2005)—were unstinting in their study of Darnielle’s formerly verboten childhood and teenage years. Where Mountain Goats records were, earlier in the ’00s, mostly unified by theme, now it’s more like a feel—the paranoid whispering of 2006’s Get Lonely, the full-throated declarative mode of last year’s Heretic Pride.
The songs, Darnielle told Pitchfork’s Tom Breihan last month, address “something a little thorny—either the death of someone you love, or what it means to murder someone, or what it means to have love you don’t expect to feel again.” And we know more about the artist than we used to, so we can declare with confidence that, say, Life‘s masterfully traumatized “Matthew 25: 21,” with its straightforward devotional lyrics (“You were a presence full of light upon this earth/And I am a witness to your life and to its worth”), is about Darnielle’s mother-in-law dying. But love songs as bluntly one-sided as “Genesis 30:3” don’t need much in the way of backstory: “I remember seeing you, my tongue stuck dumb/When you first came here, from wherever it was you came from.” The “I” is pretty much the least important part of that sentence.
As Darnielle’s songs have grown more autobiographical, they’ve also become, at times, less elliptical—here, he applies some of that newfound clarity to the universally muddled emotional moments to which his writing has always been drawn. “I know you’re thinking of me,” he sings on “1 John 4:16,” “because it’s just about to rain.” Or: “I will do what you ask me to do because of how I feel about you.” Darnielle’s music, too, has fewer knots these days. Since moving from propulsive, self-recorded boombox cassette tapes to studio recordings and a band of exceedingly qualified musicians—in 2009, longtime bassist Peter Hughes and Superchunk’s Jon Wurster on drums, with string arrangements by Final Fantasy’s Owen Pallett—the Mountain Goats have found a whole new range of expressive options. Three muted, downbeat EPs released in the last year—Satanic Messiah, Black Pear Tree, and Moon Colony Bloodbath—provide the template for Life, which roams along the continuum between devastatingly solo, near a cappella dirges and lightly percussive, Wurster-fueled post-dub.
Either way, the songs that aren’t about love seem to be mostly about death: “I am a flightless bird, and there’ll be no more after me,” Darnielle sings on “Deuteronomy 2:10,” while “Philippians 3:20-21,” with its bitterly ironic allusion to the transubstantiation that comes too late for the living, meditates on the difficulties of daily existence for those of us still above ground: “The path to the palace of wisdom, that the mystics walk/Is lined with neuroleptics, and electric shock/Hope daily for healing/Try not to go insane.” It’s an oblique epitaph for any number of people who’ve died this year—some, Darnielle does more than imply, by their own hand. We’re always sinning against something.
The Mountain Goats play Webster Hall December 1 and the Bell House December 2