The Life of the World to Come tells a story of faith without entrenching itself in a single religious ideology.
The Mountain Goats’ frontman John Darnielle identifies himself as religious, but he remains skeptical of institutionalized faith. Instead of forcing a specific dogma on the listener, Darnielle uses his songs to pursue ideas or ask questions. Each track, named for a passage from the Bible, follows concepts drawn from or inspired by that text.
Expressed in simple language, Darnielle’s words resonate because of their honesty. “I will do what you ask me to do / Because of how I feel about you”, he sings in “Genesis 30:3”. This simple language, however, does not imply simple subject matter. Even though listeners understand what he’s saying, The Life of the World to Come requires multiple listens and some contemplation.
Pursuing complex, universal themes such as our search for home, for love, or for the afterlife in accessible language allows listeners across the spectrum of “religiousness” to ponder them. Darnielle seems interested in initiating a conversation rather than simply voicing his personal opinions. This approach appeals to me because, rather than limiting his audience through dogmatic rigidity, Darnielle uses the Bible as a platform from which he can speak to everyone.
Whether you view the Bible as a strict rule book or as just another piece of literature, The Life of the World to Come encourages you to ask questions and draw your own conclusions about faith.
Darnielle’s chameleon voice also enhances The Life of the World to Come. Sometimes nasal, sometimes rough, sometimes melodic, he characterizes each song through vocal variation. Often speaking in rhythm rather than singing, he also evokes a conversational tone. This sense of conversation comes through in the instrumentals also. Rather than complex instrumental layers, The Life of the World to Come usually features acoustic guitar, piano, and drums. However, a few songs incorporate other instruments to great effect.
Among these is “Psalm 40:2”, which uses electric guitars. A swirl of drums, vocals, and guitars drives its final line, in which Darnielle’s usually soft voice rises to a skittering wail. This emotional investment compels listeners to care as well, asks them to listen well and to think.
My favorite aspects of this album – the thought-provoking lyrics and Darnielle’s ever-transforming voice – hardly explain The Life of the World to Come. I feel unqualified to discuss other attributes, especially its musicality. My dad has a theory about music, though. He says: “If it sounds good, it is good.”
I don’t agree with him entirely, but, because I’ve found so much that I love in this album, somehow all the parts I don’t understand are less important. For now, I’m happy to listen and to ponder. The Life of the World to Come by The Mountain Goats lets me do this and reminds me that sometimes asking questions is more important than finding answers.