The Mountain Goats
with Final Fantasy
8 p.m. Monday, Nov. 23
In one of his most popular songs, John Darnielle, frontman for folk-rock group the Mountain Goats, chants "Hail Satan" with a televangelist's gusto. On the road, he does so routinely, along with throngs of his über-devoted cult of followers, their devil horns rhythmically piercing the air to the satanic rallying cry. The song in question, "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton," is one of many in Darnielle's intimidatingly deep back catalog that references a Biblical figure. Taken together, these songs reflect his complex relationship to faith (not to mention a helluva themed mixtape).
Raised Catholic and relapsed, Darnielle has employed Biblical allusions or references to God in songs from his first early-'90s cassette all the way through 2008's "San Bernardino". Tracks like "Transjordanian Blues," "Abide With Me," "The Plague" and "Heretic Pride" are explicitly religious, but most of those songs are rare or unreleased. Only this year has Darnielle gone whole hog with The Life of the World to Come, an album based on the 12 Bible verses that give the tracks their titles.
Though many of the songs on The Life do not reference God literally, enough of them do ("If you will believe in your heart and confess with your lips/Surely you will be saved one day," he promises in "Romans 10:9") to make it a risky venture in the secular world of indie.
"I could write about any other subject matter, and if I write about animals, people wouldn't say, ‘That's about animals, and I'm not into animals,'" says Darnielle. "But as soon as Amy Grant is writing songs about her faith, people won't look at her as a musician because there's this extra thing, and people will say, ‘I don't listen to stuff that's about that.' That is a little weird, and there's a little of that contrary strain in me that wants to test that boundary and say, well, are you really interested in good songwriting? Or are you only interested in good songwriting if it's about certain subjects?"
It helps that The Life of the World to Come is Darnielle's career apotheosis. It's a poetic zenith from an artist who continues to challenge himself and expand the consciousness of his listeners, from the fire-and-brimstone barn-burner "Psalms 40:2" to the tear-stained narrative of his mother-in-law's cancer-stricken passing on "Matthew 25:21" to the unabashedly worshipful, transcendent "Isaiah 45:23."
Like most of Darnielle's concept albums, its conceptual nature evolved organically.
"It just sort of turned out that way. I don't sit down and say, I'm going to write an album about this," says Darnielle. "The only time I did that was `the Mountain Goats' 2002 album` Tallahassee. What happens is I write songs and they begin to sort of hang together, sort of like a crowd gathering in a public space. And with this, I wrote ‘John 4:16,' and the next one I wrote that I really liked was ‘Psalms 40:2' and another one that didn't make the album, and I thought, ‘Well, there's three. Hunh.'"
Darnielle doesn't know yet if the record has attracted a more Christian-rock following than his previous ones, though a recent Colbert Report appearance has garnered the band more commercial buzz than ever before. (That show's website even streamed the new album for 24 hours.)
"Half of me hopes so, but half of me doesn't want to be falsely selling myself," says Darnielle. "I earnestly hope nobody looks at the record and thinks, ‘I'm getting a Christian rock record.' Because it's not that."email@example.com