Label: 4AD Release date: 05/10/09 Website: John Darnielle, whether his "fi" is "lo" or "hi", is one of the greatest storytellers of this generation. In 2002, he wrote and sang for us Tallahassee, a fairy tale telling of a married couple gradually imploding one song after another; in 2005, he provided The Sunset Tree, the striking memoirs of an abusive childhood. This year, the master storyteller begat The Life of the World to Come, "12 hard lessons" he learned from the Greatest Story Ever Told, aided only by Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster on bass and drums, respectively, and the unstoppable folk-rock vehicle that is The Mountain Goats. The Life of the World to Come draws from the bible thematically with songs about redemption, rebirth, healing, and sacrifice. Darnielle isn't treading any new ground with this subject matter, having already composed albums aimed at finding redemption in the darkest corners of life, but its tonal and lyrical depth lends songs like the standout 'Psalms 4:20' an interpretive structure as engaging as its source material's. That particular song's twistingly sardonic chorus, galloping intensity, and lyrical juxtaposition of faith and waywardness ("drunk on the spirits," and "let my mouth be ever fresh with praise" immediately come to mind) make it the most deliciously ironic Mountain Goats song since 'No Children.' 'Psalms,' regretfully, stands alone in terms of energy. Darnielle can construct a powerful whispered ballad--the tear-jerking 'Matthew 25:21' makes this evident-- but 'Deuteronomy 2:10,' and 'Genesis 30:3' slowly crawl on for seeming ages, the primary feeling they initially evoke being lethargy. Many other tracks feature barely any instrumentation aside from Darnielle's solo acoustic or piano hooks, though string flourishes bring beauty to the otherwise musically humdrum tracks '1 John 4:16' and 'Hebrews 11:40.' These sparser builds and slower melodies beg the listener to play closer attention, bringing mood and lyrics into focus. The Mountain Goats were always a band where careful listening pays off, and Darnielle has dug another lyrical goldmine with The Life of the World to Come. Darnielle crafts for us a slew of unique characters through which his stories of faith are told: a murderer finds faith and sanctuary in fleeing to Mexico in 'Ezekiel 7;' a man breaks into his old home, in his own way of "tilling the ground from which he was taken" in the upbeat 'Genesis 3:23.' The crown jewel comes in the form of 'Matthew 25:21,' which is wrapped in metaphors made doubly profound by their starkly obvious meaning:
I am an airplane tumbling wing over wing
Tried to listen to my instruments
They don't say anything
People screaming when the engines quit
I hope we're all in crash position when we hit.
Such a combination of layered, though accessible, song meanings and simple, yet elegant, instrumentation has not been seen since Smog's Knock Knock or, well, the Mountain Goats' own Tallahassee. The only reservation is Darnielle's unwillingness to throw a little extra oomph into both his vocals and arrangements, opting instead to go the route of quiet tragedy and soporific joy for most of the album. While it does tread on in places, the strategy is often effective enough to be sincere, or even heartbreaking. All points considered, this is undoubtedly Darnielle's best album in years, and certainly among the best of his studio-quality offerings. Amen. Rating: 9/10