Tuesday, 6 October 2009

Review: The Life Of The World To Come by The Mountain Goats

Of Beginnings

A bassy, palm-muted, minimalist acoustic guitar. Dabbings of bass drum and an occasional hissing, rattling hi-hat. The Life Of The World To Come by The Mountain Goats starts brilliantly. Lyrically, the opening is similarly strong:

I became a crystal healer
and my ministry was to the sick
creeping vines would send out runners
and seek me in their numbers
I sold self-help tapes
Go down to the netherworld, plant grapes

It's been a while since my attention was so rapaciously grabbed by the first few bars of an album. And the first song ('1 Samuel 15:23') is, I'd say, pretty much faultless. An intense, enigmatic lyrical voice. Sparse instrumentation extremely skilfully recorded and superbly produced. Brooding, ominous. Unshakeably it establishes a thickly pervasive atmosphere for the entire record. Sets (if you will) the stage. It's as good an opener as 'Airbag' is to ok computer.

And that's good.

So – how about you download an mp3 of 1 Samuel 15:23 by the Mountain Goats? Come back when you're done, won't you?

Of Good Music

Good music means something to its producers. It's not just spewed out from refinery to factory to outlet.

Good music demands; it communicates. Expresses.

And The Life Of The World To Come is the most interesting album I've listened to since Bill Callahan's Sometimes I Wish We Were An Eagle. World To Come isn't as clever (from a literary point of view, or with respect to its songcraft) as Eagle. But it's cleverer than most. And, in common with Callahan's record, it is saturated with powerful, intense, thoroughly sincere emotion.

Now, Heavy Soil doesn't know about you, but Heavy Soil grows immensely tired of the capriciously ironical 'whimsy' and trendily self-aware posturing that dominates the alternative/folkish musical genres.

So a bit of emotional saturation goes down very well with us.

Of Versatility

Musically, the early stages of the record demonstrate a good deal of versatility: the sparseness of the opener gives way (excellently) to the spitting, pulsing, juddering momentum of 'Psalms 40:2'. As the album progresses, there's less pronounced contrast between songs (a pity), but musical imaginativeness is evident in some lovely string arrangements (don't expect swooning orchestral lines: these are sparse, dry, intelligent.)

And one of the most commendable of the features on display is musical restraint. Download an mp3 of the lovely Hebrews 11:40, won't you? Notice the point (around 2:20) at which the arrangement swells toward a climax, only to pull back at the last moment.


Of themes
(always the most boring and obvious part of an English essay, so I'll keep it short)

The Life Of The World To Come is, conceptually, a very tight album. It is unified by clear and consistent themes – the clearest of which (revealed by a single glance at the 100% biblical tracklisting) is religion/faith. We'll come back to this later – you bet.

Less overtly, the songs are bound together by strands of imagery (cars, sickness, the domestic) and feeling (detachment, introspection, passivity). This is a very cohesive piece of work. And imbuing the whole record is a narrative (played out without linearity) of death and bereavement.

Of theological wrangling

So, it's going pretty well, so far. You'll be surprised then, perhaps, to discover that The Life Of The World To Come has nevertheless been giving me – your beloved reviewer – some trouble.

'Romans 10:9' is the crux of it. Without ado, here's the chorus:

If you will believe in your heart
And confess with your lips
Surely you will be saved one day

Uh huh.

Now, my review-writing muse – an enigmatic character known only as FieldVole – was pretty down on this. She called it 'Praise music'. And, in isolation, that's a criticism (and boy did she mean it as a criticism…) I cannot counter. I don't much like pop songs of the ilk implied by those lyrics above. It reminds me of awful freshers' week experiences. Christian Rock.

But hold on a minute. Wasn't it TS Eliot that wrote –

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death

– and suchlike? Yes, it was indeed. Of course, there's no comparison between the two in terms of poetry (Eliot's lines are brilliantly written); but it's clear enough that Eliot (along with many, many other poets and novelists whom I admire) produce work that explicitly deals with Christian faith and the issues surrounding it.

So I should be clear: I have absolutely no problem with art – be it a poem, a song or a painting – that's created from an explicitly religious perspective. I would never decry a creative work because it was written from a Christian perspective. 'Ash Wednesday' (from which those above lines of Eliot's are quoted) is one of my favourite poems.

The problem with 'Romans 10:9', though, is that it is bland. Not only lyrically, but also musically (over to FieldVole again, who crushingly pointed out the song's slight whiff of 'keyboard demo'. Ouch.) And so much else on this album is far from bland. Indeed, 'Romans' is so bland that, on my first few listens, I didn't even notice it. And was preparing myself to write a resoundingly positive review of the album.

Then FieldVole came in with her 'Praise Music' jibes. And I had to think again.

There's a defence (of course there's a defence: there's always a defence). Here's the chorus of 'Philippians 3:20-21':

Nice people say he has gone home to God now
Safe in his arms, safe in his arms
But the voices of the angels singing to him in his last hours with us:
Smoke alarms. Smoke alarms.

The idea is, then, that we're being led through a series of perspectives on questions of faith. The 'Smoke alarms' is our moment of camera-panning-out-to-an-empty-room objectivity. The grounding. It's like the end of Lord of the Flies (the novel, yeh?), at which we see the warring boys suddenly and powerfully through the eyes of the first and only adult in the novel.

A WHOOOMP-type moment.

So this treatment of faith – at once exploratory and sceptical – gives us a cue to take a song like 'Romans 10:9' (the bland one, right? I know: all these biblical names may make for conceptual unity, but they're bloody confusing) as just representative of one perspective. One voice. It's not supposed (I assume) to be preachy.

Problem is, it's just not a particularly convincing song. Sorry.

Of Non-Blandness

But I want to return to this: there are some truly superb things on this record. And let it be indicative of my overall feeling that I choose to close on this note.

First off, the album's final song, 'Ezekiel 7 and the Permanent Efficacy Of Grace', is brilliant. It draws together the themes and imagery (it seems to me) in an almost faultless way. And it's musically sparse, haunting, atmospheric. A mirror image of the opening.

And, finally, let's talk about 'Matthew 25:21', which I'd take to be the record's core. It charts the journey of the narrator for a last visit to a terminally ill person (a relative, we presume). The first time I listened to the album, I was not prepared for the intensity of this song – and the degree to which, by the time it played, my attention had been transfixed. Emotionally, it is sparingly effective. And lyrically. Lyrically, it is very, very good. Here's the best bit of the whole album. Right here:

I felt all the details
Carving out space in my head
Tropicanas on the walkway
Neon red.

This is fucking excellent. Absolutely superb. It's why I love literature. Because it simply, elegantly, unfussily describes a sensation that is both complex and 100% familiar and convincing: in this instance, the foreknowledge of nostalgia to come.

If only this kind of lyrical pellucidity could carry through to those small islets of blandness. That's all I want to say.

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