on 7 March 2011
There is always catharsis with John Darnielle's songwriting. He expresses this well indirectly through the narrator's expression in "Master of Reality", an installment he wrote in the 33&1/3 series about Black Sabbath's album:
"People always talk about good time rock and roll, Chuck Berry or whatever, like this liberating force for feeling good. But what I need in my life is to be liberated into feeling bad. Not sad. I have plenty of sad. What I need is a place where I can spray anger in sparks like a gnarled piece of electrical cable. Just be mad at stuff and soak in the helplessness. "
The songwriter has gained a true and reliable following and it is at the stage in his prolific career in which he can express what is deep in his spirit. Though this review is much delayed, especially coming from somebody who has taken a lot of inspiration in life from Darnielle. It is something that must be done though; for someone who has been inspired following listening to an album to actually empty his pockets for a dense King James Version Bible to understand it better... well, it's a priority to give it its due.
The reading of the Bible did not come until a few weeks following buying The Life of the World to Come but it was certainly influenced by it. After hearing emotionally complex pieces life Genesis 30:3 that can only really be understood in context. I appreciate that Darnielle almost forces the listener to reach to the literature he is certainly inspired by. For instance, earlier in his career you can feel the energy taken from Richard Yates and William Faulkner. You can sense that the songwriter is intensely influenced by literature, and if you love the Mountain Goats you will appreciate them all the more with reading into the lyrics more.
Anyway, to begin with: Genesis 30:3. It took me until I heard a bootlegged version of this song to appreciate it. It was a live performace late in 2009 and Darnielle's expression, the intimacy with which he introduces and then proceeds to sing the piece: it is a very, very meaningful song. It is a song based on the story of how Jacob, son of Abraham, has to conceive with his maidservant Bilhah instead of with his wife Rachel. And Rachel will bear the child because Jacob must have an heir;
"And she said, Behold my maid Bilhah, go in unto her; and she shall bear upon my knees, that I may also have children by her."
The interpretation is so human, so filled with pathos that though Darnielle is an aposticized Christian that is by no means a reason to assume he does not understand the meaning of the words. The gentleness and stripped bare nature of instrumentation is stunning and given cadence to the voice and the words that are the centre of the piece. This is why Darnielle's music will only ever improve with age: insight and an unbelievable expressive ability.
It's only ever appropriate to write about moments that are understood; the latter are obviously to come later. So it'll be best to write about certain songs, especially Romans 10:9 which is a song more or less about persecution and suffering, and moving forward despite painful realities;
"Everything looks burned up; I'm too scared to look around. Don't feel like going on but, come on, make a joyful sound. But if you believe in your heart and confess with your lips, surely you will be saved one day..."
The song releases a sense of human suffering from the extract which is not singularly Christian or gentile; it is universal. And therein lies the point; Darnielle presents the Bible as a source of inspiration and irrational human endeavour against unbelievable odds. The underlying theme of this album is hope and sense of self-purpose. The energy is there, whether God is or isn't, and that is what matters. Darnielle understands his characters and in this and not the characters does the listener reach an understanding of the overall purpose: humans are alike and share the same hopes and fears of what the future holds. Darnielle exposes the meaning of Romans 10:9 and approaches it with diligence and thoughtfulness. He does not corrupt the meaning but seeks to understand it.
Isaiah 45:23 is an extract from what may be the most intellectually challenging part of the Bible; it is acceptance of fate and a belief in the infinite or eternal. Having been quite close to death or the thought of death it is an unbelievable expression of loneliness, helplessness but, above all, an expression of fearlessness. This song one of those perfect pieces that Darnielle has composed which has quite likely saved or at least helped the listeners through a difficult time in their lives. There's something about being able to express a thought, whether objectively or through a second fictional character, in a piece of music, a thought which encapsulates that exact feeling.
To be lonely but fearless is a terrible thing. Especially when pain no longer offends; only the experience of being out of touch with all neighbours and friends. seems to deny the joy of living. Darnielle sums up the isolated hospital patient, the terminally ill, the suicides, the death sentences, and even the people who just fear dying without any true friends or understanding. Belief in something true, undeniably pure and infinite; that is the answer in those sorts of situation;
"If my prayer goes unanswered that's alright. If my path fills with darkness and there is no sign of light, let me praise you for the good times, let me hold your banner high, until the hills are flattened and the rivers all run dry. And I won't get better, but some day I'll be free, 'cause I am not this body that imprisons me..."
John Darnielle, a wonderful insight and expression, and unbiased interpretation of a difficult subject. I would be content to take cues from him in my own writing, as it has done a lot of good to a lot of people. I warmly anticipate the new album which is released in March this year, All Eternals Deck. Perhaps after The Life of The World to Come the songwriter can take a few liberties and dabble in other less weighty subject matter.