Hard lessons linger for Mountain Goats on songs named for Bible verses

After the wrenching catharsis of the Mountain Goats’ 2005 album “The Sunset Tree,” John Darnielle’s songwriting took a quieter, almost weary turn — and no wonder. The songs on “The Sunset Tree” were highly personal accounts of his abusive stepfather, and Darnielle’s next couple albums reflected the exhaustion he must have felt after coming to terms with the memories lurking in the dark recesses of his soul.

The Mountain Goats’ latest, “The Life of the World to Come” (4AD), continues in the quieter vein of 2006’s “Get Lonely” and 2008’s “Heretic Pride,” but ratchets up the intensity on a dozen songs named for Bible verses — “12 hard lessons the Bible taught me,” as Darnielle put it on the band’s website over the summer.

He returns to dire imagery on “Psalms 40:2,” singing of burning fuselages and shrapnel in his full-throated, quavering way over a terse, pulsing bass line and hard-strummed acoustic guitar. It’s one of the louder tunes on an album built largely around vocal understatement and tightly coiled tension. Darnielle sounds at times as though he’s singing through clenched teeth on opener “1 Samuel 15:23,” letting the foreboding minor-key arrangement assist in creating the mood.

Darnielle is more sorrowful on “Matthew 25:21″ as a terminally ill loved one nears the end, and he muses over the past on “Genesis 30:3,” a song so quiet you can hear the levers moving inside the piano between each mournful chord.

The hard lessons are usually the ones that linger, and so it is with the songs on “The Life of the World to Come.” There’s great sadness here, and regret and even little flashes of joy, and they make for songs that are as compelling now as they are memorable later.

— Text by Eric R. Danton, photo by Chrissy Piper

Genesis 30:3 mp3

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