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Album Review
The Life of the World to Come

The Life of the World to Come
by The Mountain Goats


Review Date
14th April 2010
Reviewed by
Brannavan Gnanalingam

The Mountains Goats are one of the most consistent outfits around despite having released seventeen albums over nearly twenty years, whether it’s the solo lo-fi of singer John Darnielle’s early work, or the denser material of the band’s second decade output. It’s a tribute to this consistency that each release has had its own unique character. While driven by Darnielle’s story-telling and empathy for his characters, the music also stands out in its own right, with strong melodies and increasingly assured instrumentation (even if his latest is more stripped back than the previous, underrated, Heretic Pride). The Life of World to Come was directly inspired by biblical verses, and carry their names – but the inspiration is not any sort of direct religious sense, but rather from a more literary way. But it’s the music which stands out – in particular the lovely arrangements (including string whiz Owen Pallett’s string score), and the increasingly assertive percussion of the legendary Jon Wurster (also of Superchunk).

The religious elements shouldn’t come as a surprise to long-time listeners of the Mountain Goats. His songs have always revolved around concepts like redemption, fate, forgiveness, and brotherhood, and in a non-denominational spiritual sense – if anything, these themes are often the only lights in what would otherwise be very dark albums or characters (though, the characters are largely absent in this album in a narrative sense). These themes also prevent his albums from being too mawkish, his lyrics maintain a directness which is emotionally engaging, but are dark enough to give greater effect to his themes. And, it’s no different in this album, which maintains that brilliantly fine balance that Darnielle achieves between darkness and light.

The album is considerably quieter than Heretic Pride in particular, and the tension present in the music is palpable. It’s as if Darnielle wants to unleash throughout, but can’t quite do so, adding a menacing subtext to the album. The music only explodes once – early on, with the brilliant ‘Psalms 40:2’, in which Wurster’s drums and Peter Hughes’ bass match Darnielle’s anguished vocal performance (biblically, the verse is about being lifted out of the mire, though if anything, the song sounds like it’s wallowing). Perhaps more dynamic shifts could have been included, especially as otherwise it’s a mostly gentle album. There are moments are regret, such as the “see how the people here live now // hope that they’re better at it than I was // I used to live here” of ‘Genesis 3:23’ (biblically, that verse is about the expulsion of Adam from the Garden of Eden), or displaced emotion such as in the devastatingly beautiful accompaniments to the apocalypse in ‘Ezekial 7 and the Permanent Efficacy of Grace’. The Life of the World to Come is another seemingly effortless piece of work by the Mountain Goats, one that seems so simple, but manages to be emotionally and musically engaging underneath it all.

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