An interesting if slightly shallow theological experiment, what with its 12 Bible verse-titled tracks (“1 Samuel 15:23,” “Isaiah 45:23,” etc.), the Mountain Goats’s The Life of the World to Come is not the sound of John Darnielle finding religion. Despite the conceptual structure, the album is not markedly different from any late-era Mountain Goats release, full of reedy acoustic songs that sometimes bloom into full instrumentation. And the material isn’t necessarily anymore spiritually introspective than his previous work.
It’s not that the structure of the album is meaningless. Comparing the actual verses to their corresponding songs suggests a connection. Genesis 3:23 reads, “so the Lord God banished him from the Garden of Eden to till the ground from which he had been taken,” while the track of that name is a ditty about breaking into your old house. This personalization of a remote source text is an appealing concept, though one that’s not always so easy to figure out. The connection between 1 John 4:16 (“thus we have come to know and believe the love which God has for us”) and a stumbling, dreary digression about a metaphorical prison cell is slightly more oblique.
Beyond the inspiration angle, the larger concept here demands further questions. Was Darnielle paging aimlessly through the Bible, snatching up lines, or is there an overarching message? It feels strange to compare Darnielle to Dan Brown, but Life benefits from the same built-in mystique as something like The Da Vinci Code, capitalizing on a familiar text that’s also vastly puzzling. Here the connection plays as a forced, if unintentional, gimmick; for fans burnt out on the band after 18 years and 16 albums, this kind of puzzle, the ambiguity of how these songs connect, amounts to a novelty. It also distracts from the songs, which, all things considered, are business-as-usual for Darnielle, who has made a career out of being thoroughly consistent. Literate, perceptive, sometimes a tad mawkish, they’re also resolutely sturdy, insightful diversions that would please even without the Biblical trappings.