“Dying to Life”: The Mountain Goats’ Mortal Climb

Art & Literature, Culture, Media, Music — By on October 12, 2009 at 12:01 am

Some people are filled with a loud joy, as if naturally disposed to see the light in life.

For others, the road to discovering light is hard-won: they arise to a place of perspective and authenticity–a quiet joy–only through experiencing and witnessing painful descents.

John Darnielle, singer/songwriter for the folk rock band The Mountain Goats, is this second sort of person. In their latest album, The Life of the World to Come, his life’s battle is laid bare alongside his vision of its inevitable end when death arrives. Darnielle’s story is almost unbelievable: he was raised by an abusive stepfather, has been a nurse in a psychiatric ward, homeless, and friends with methamphetamine addicts.

One should not expect that his songs are a bowl of cherries, bouquet of roses, cup of tea, or any other cliché. His lyrics are sandpaper: they scrape raw, but the scars are a temporary necessity in the journey to final elegance. Certainly, this is not a ‘background-dinner-music’ album. It demands the listener’s full attention. Nor is this necessarily an album for everyone. The person capable of possessing bright joy without witnessing the dark night may not need to hear this album.

Musically, the album takes a minimalist, acoustic approach. This is not an album for someone seeking musical innovation or versatile orchestration. The album utilizes simple steel-string guitar and piano, as well as occasional percussion. Fittingly, only skeletons of heavy chord progressions accompany Darnielle’s difficult, insightful lyrics.

Every track—each one named after a different passage of Scripture—builds to form a rich religious progression, culminating at the concluding bass drum ‘heartbeat’ in the last song, “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace.” This album is not shy about its theme: preparation for death. Darnielle has stated that he is not a Christian, and while The Life of the World to Come surely won’t make an appearance in CCM Magazine, his words are deep spiritual meditations that synthesize personal experiences and Scripture passages.

One of the final tracks, ‘Matthew 25:21′, is a perfect example. Based on the verse, “His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master,’” the song tells the story of traveling cross-country to a beloved friend’s bedside, simply to be with them in the final surrender to cancer. “Tried to brace myself, but you can’t brace yourself when the time comes,” Darnielle recalls. And then he continues as if he is releasing his friend into the ‘joy of his master’: “We all stood there around you, happy to hear you speak,” he sings. “The last of something bright burning, still burning…You were a presence full of light upon this earth, and I am a witness to your life and to its worth.”

Likewise, the other tracks draw from actual events. “Genesis 3:23” (free to download via 4AD Records) describes the nostalgia of returning to an old home, now filled by other homeowners. Yet Darnielle adds a new dimension to this familiar experience by pairing it with the verse, “…therefore the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden to work the ground from which he was taken.” His lyrics bring scriptures alive by incarnating them into accessible—though often pain-filled—human experiences.

For the person who struggles to find light, The Life of the World to Come is a descent worth taking. However, the listener must trust that Darnielle will not end in the descent, though he should not be expected to completely vanquish darkness. Nevertheless, Darnielle successfully continue the battle in hope. Even with the final lines, Darnielle presses us forward. “Drive ’till the rain stops,” he cries out and then, he concludes, “Keep driving.”


The Life of the World to Come was released by 4AD Records on October 6th and is available for purchase on Amazon.


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