The Mountain Goats, The Life of the World to Come
playing April 17 only at Northwest Film Forum
This is an hour of pure Mountain Goats. So pure in fact it is John Darnielle filmed playing without a audience, in an auditorium just a few months ago (Lyman Hall, at Pomona College, in Claremont, CA, on July 29, 2009), in the center of a circle of tracks as a camera speeds and slows around him, drawing the audience in like cold hands to a warm fire.
With only Rachel Ware from the Bright Mountain Choir to add a bit of backing vocals early on, you’re watching mostly John at a big Steinway — possibly the one he played when he performed Bach minuets as an eight year old piano student — and his battered acoustic guitar, splitting up songs from the most recent Mountain Goats release, Life of the World to Come.
At first, this intimacy is unsettling. I love much of the music from this album by The Mountain Goats but wondered if 60 minutes of watching Darnielle playing it would be a little boring. John plays, looking probably intentionally Ecclesiastical in his black shirt, blue jeans, and Advent-purple tie. The second track in, I was hoping for more visually. And then I came to realize that it is the uncomfortable closeness (even if fictional) and lyrical precision of Darnielle’s work which brings one to watch him perform. And by the end of the film, I was very glad I only let my attention wander on maybe that second track (“Genesis 30:3”) due to pendant, mistaken expectations.
Directed by Rian Johnson (Brick, The Brothers Bloom), The Life of the World to Come may only feature songs from one Mountain Goats album, an album in which every song has a specific Bible verse (name and number) for a title, but this is a particularly strong collection of songs. Even if you’re not a big fan of Scripture, these are alternately hopeful and agonizing narratives about connection if not love (“I know you’re thinking of me because it’s just about to rain” in “1 John 4:16”), the torture of the body’s “chronic pain and chronic illness” but the spirit’s craving for healing (in “Isaiah 45:23”), supernatural forces that plague and assist (“witches hiding in the dry leaves,” “I’m going to be restored” in “Hebrews 11:40”), and at least one powerfully gorgeous ode to the death of a friend from cancer (“Matthew 25:21”).
As you listen to Darnielle either tenderly strum or thrust out a speed metal-inspired bridge, or let his fingers almost randomly fall on the weighted keys like the raindrops he often sings about, you think about the stories he built inside these Bible tales, or around them, or what they have to do with Scripture, or what we have to do with each other. You get past the initial starkness of the film but the ache of closeness becomes an awareness of the pain of being. By the time my heart broke midway through “Matthew 25:21,” near the end of the film, I realized this particular song about traveling to see his friend (“we all stood around you — the last of something brightly burning”) was all about our placement in others’ living and dying. At that moment of musical transubstantiation (if you will), not only the singer becomes the song, but we do too.
But what, no encore?
In support of Record Store Day on April 17th, 4AD is making available 1500 copies of the film on DVD, which will be for sale at stores participating in RSD. The limited edition DVD is presented within a gorgeous custom designed 12-page book with liner notes by John Darnielle, created specifically for this project by Horse & Buggy Press in Durham, NC.