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The Mountain Goats - The Life of the World to Come

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Artist: The Mountain Goats

Album: The Life of the World to Come

Label: 4AD

Review date: Sep. 28, 2009

The evidence is circumstantial, but palpable — Mountain Goats leader John Darnielle reads Dusted. Our review of the last proper Mountain Goats record, Heretic Pride, characterized the uncharacteristically overpowering drumming on the last track as sounding like they were appropriated from some Steve Albini recording. This time he’s hired Albini’s studio Electrical Audio, although not Albini himself, to obtain the big but un-processed sound that surrounds his songs. It’s unclear if he took Dusted scribe Charlie Wilmoth’s chief criticism to heart, but one of this record’s charms is its relative success in confronting one of the Mountain Goats’ most enduring dilemmas since Darnielle stopped recording his songs on a boombox – how to make the music as interesting as the words?

That said, Darnielle seems to have heavier things on his mind than what instruments to use and where to apply the compression. Every song on The Life of the World to Come is named after a Bible verse, which reflects one of the places he has turned for solace and guidance while dealing with issues instantly relatable to anyone who’s lived long enough — ill health, the undying memory of your past mistakes, and the passing of the people you most love.

Potentially fertile material, but how to keep it from turning mawkish? One option is sheer craft. “Matthew 25:21” delivers a lyric that captures the impotence one feels when watching someone die of cancer just as vividly as the tightly constructed short fictions he used to write in the 90s about bad debts and mummified Vikings.

But other songs, while solid, don’t hit you as fast and hard as his pithily related scenarios of yore. On these, Darnielle implements solutions that should be familiar to anyone who recognizes faith as something you wrestle with rather than pot and keep in place forevermore. He allows for skepticism on “Romans 10:9,” seeming sympathetic to its protagonist’s hope that God will keep things from falling apart, but not necessarily share his faith. But he also brings charity, granting the crystal healer in "1 Samuel 15:23" purity of intent instead of going the easy route and painting him in snake oil.

Thoughtful accompaniment also helps. Jon Wurster sounds much more integrated into the music here than he did adding gaudy rock-opera melodrama to Heretic Pride‘s “Michael Myers Resplendent.” His sparse toms and strategically deployed cymbals on “1 Samuel 15:23” feel like they need to be there, as does his underpinning heartbeat on “Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace.”

Less successful is Darnielle’s own piano playing on that number and elsewhere. It’s as rudimentary as his guitar playing was on his early cassette-only releases, but far less spirited. It appears as the lead instrument on three songs besides “Ezekiel 7,” and while his laborious technique adds contrast and poignancy to the string-swaddled “1 John 4:16,” there’s just not enough happening on “Deuteronomy 2:10” and “Genesis 30:3” to maintain interest. It’s cool that he’s trying to change things up, but there’s no substitute for a strong result.

By Bill Meyer

Other Reviews of The Mountain Goats

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We Shall All Be Healed

The Sunset Tree

Get Lonely

Heretic Pride

All Eternals Deck

Transcendental Youth

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View all articles by Bill Meyer

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