Somewhere between the Montreal branch of the Mountain Goats’ record label, 4AD, and my basement office, something terrible happened. My download of the band’s 17th long-player, The Life of the World to Come, arrived all tangled up in itself, the songs materializing on my computer in thoroughly random order. Yet the human brain is so programmed to seek narrative that I used this scrambled information to generate a plausible story line of delusion, death, and redemption—and even though I got it all wrong, it turned out all right in the end.
“You know, I’d say your reading is accurate, but I wouldn’t say that was what I was trying to do,” says the man behind the Mountain Goats, John Darnielle, on the line from his home in Durham, North Carolina. “When you’re writing songs, it’s kind of like working in the dark. You write what you have, and then you find out what it was about. So the task falls to both of us to read them, ’cause it’s not like I sit down with a design. It’s not like building guitars; it’s more like painting with blinders on or something like that.”
Gently, he disabuses me of the notion that The Life of the World to Come tells a story. Instead, it tells several. “Matthew 25:21”, for instance, is about the death of the singer-guitarist’s mother-in-law; “Philippians 3:20-21” recounts Darnielle’s reaction to the suicide of writer David Foster Wallace; “Psalms 40:2” is a fiction about grief-crazed vandalism. Death and loss are recurring themes, but The Life of the World to Come wasn’t necessarily conceived as an album about such serious matters.
“Here’s the thing: I always wondered what a ”˜concept album’ actually means, because I think any album is going to be a concept album in some sense or another,” Darnielle says. “They’re all going to be the songs that you wrote in the space of a year or two, and for me as a writer, anyway, I’m always mulling round a theme or two. But I don’t sit down and say, ”˜Now I shall write songs about this.’ I write a bunch of songs and I look at them, and the ones that seem to fit together well, I put together.”
There’s another organizing principle at work here, as the song titles suggest. Each of The Life of the World to Come’s 12 songs is named for and quotes a passage from the Bible, a book Darnielle clearly believes is good, even as he entertains doubts about the existence of its supposed author.
“I really hate to be settling into something that resembles agnosticism, because as a young firebrand you sort of want to run hot or cold,” he says. “But I lean towards the probability that we are an accident of evolution, so our behaviour doesn’t have this grander meaning that our philosophical systems have come to describe. But you sort of need that meaning to get by, you know, and it’s not a totally empty meaning, because it’s there for us.”
In that light, the Bible’s vast repository of language and archetypes is a terrific resource for a songwriter—and perhaps especially for this lapsed Catholic.
“If I hear an image that I think is useful, like the chorus of ”˜Psalms 40:2’, I’ll think, ”˜Ah, that’s really pretty good. There’s a singer who had a good idea!’?” Darnielle says. “That King David, you know: he made a couple of good albums. And you hear them and you think, ”˜Oh, man, I wish I’d written that!’ But people have been using those lines for their own songs for years and years.”
The Mountain Goats play the Rickshaw Theatre on Wednesday (June 2).