John Darnielle isn’t new to the act of searching. He’s recorded 17 albums under the Mountain Goats handle in 18 years, exploring numerous themes, song series, and voices (in the literary sense) throughout, consistent in his delivery but never settling into one story or philosophy. It’s in this spirit that the North Carolina-based singer-songwriter approaches that greatest of searches, looking to the Good Book for inspiration to drum up, in his words, “12 hard lessons the Bible taught me, kind of.” Each of the songs on The Life Of The World To Come is named after the verse of its genesis (pun intended), and the influence ranges from abstract to direct. A couple of them—the poppy college-rocker “Romans 10:9” and the exceptionally soulful, Willie Nelson-reminiscent “Isaiah 45:23”—could even play on Christian radio without drawing a sideways glance.
But most of the songs on The Life explore the reason for Darnielle’s most recent pursuit. More than a series of exercises in form, these are songs of personal loss, of friends who died young, places he can’t return to, and moments that will never come back around. When the mix is right between that meticulously detailed intimacy and a little religious mythologizing, this album is at its best. The opener “1 Samuel 15:23” is a darkly spare slice of quiet hellfire with a mood matched by encroaching tape fuzz. The song that follows, “Psalms 40:2,” is an aggressive prayer sung through the teeth. Elsewhere, listeners get pulled along a barely abstracted slog through death and hospitals, where even an infant’s first glimpse of light is cast as something that “steals into the dawn” before “it’s gone forever” (“Genesis 30:3”). On several tracks, Darnielle’s voice skirts the song, barely audible, while the song itself skirts resolve. It’s further evidence that the search is ongoing, which is either terribly depressing news, or a sign that we’ll have a new Mountain Goats record to ponder in a year or so.