October 10, 2009


On the new music front there's a lot to be excited about these days. This past Tuesday saw the North American release of new albums by Air, Built to Spill, (the mega-hyped) Big Pink, the xx, the Clientele, A Place to Bury Strangers, Lake, Califone and Karl Blau, to name a few. But it's the recent media flurry (flurries are smaller than blizzards, right? We're still talking about indie music after all) surrounding the Mountain Goats' new release that has me the most intrigued. I'm not a huge Mountain Goats fan by any means. But I've heard Tallahassee, and spent a few nights alone with The Sunset Tree. Frontman and principle songwriter John Darnielle has always had an interest in spirituality and the morally ambiguous. But only a year after releasing Heretic Pride and the Satanic Messiah EP, Darielle has (atoned?) structured the new Mountain Goats album, The Life of the World to Come, entirely around verses from the Bible. I've heard it and its standard fare for Darnielle & Co. He's been surprisingly candid in interviews (especially worth checking out is his interview with Tiny Mix Tapes: "I can’t stand the idea that Christian virtues are mainly humans celebrating their indwelling natural goodness; it’s probably true, but I want transcendence."), suggesting that he interested in religion, not just from a detached secular perspective, but because he finds the Bible important, transformative and surprisingly relevant. He, of course, isn't willing to commit to anything beyond agnosticism, but I'm not too concerned about that.

What I find interesting about all of this is how the album is being reviewed. Virtually every review I've read makes an almost apologetic defense of the album, despite its religious overtones. Here's a fairly typical example:
Overall, however, “The Life of the World to Come” avoids this trap. Darnielle’s use of the Bible to highlight his characters’ conflicts paints an intricate portrait on the neutral sonic canvas; the album’s slips into repetition are overshadowed by the power of this human struggle.
And my personal favourite:
Is it surprising Darnielle was able to transform the contents of a book that generates so much conflict into simply beautiful music with a passionate message? No, not really. If they can be counted on for anything, the Mountain Goats can be counted on for great lyrical composition. The Life of the World to Come doesn’t require its listener to be someone familiar with religion, a follower of Christianity or even a person whose only religious experience boils down to CCD classes. Although it might sound fairly cheesy, the Mountain Goats’ album is able to transcend religion and get straight to the message, whatever one believes that message to be. The Life of the World to Come is simple, magnificent music with an immense amount of depth.
This appeal to a higher, supposedly more inclusive, category - something "neutral" like Human Experience - is amusingly evasive and a rather thin attempt to accomodate a loaded work of art into the public sphere. Religion is now something to be "transcended." Ha!

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