indie icon and brainy songwriter takes on the biggest topic of all – the Bible.
BY HAL BIENSTOCK
Since he formed The Mountain Goats in 1991 with nothing but
an acoustic guitar and a boombox, John Darnielle has always been a focused
lyricist, digging deeply into his subjects with a novelist’s eye for detail. And
since 2002, when Darnielle abandoned the boombox for real recording studios,
those subjects have often been pretty heavy.
After issuing concept albums about divorce (Tallahassee),
drug abuse (We Shall All Be Healed)
and his abusive stepfather (The Sunset
Tree), Darnielle is taking on his biggest subject yet: the Bible. Written
as he dealt with his own health problems and watched loved ones get sick and
even die, the twelve songs on The Life of the World to Come use
Biblical stories as jumping off points for Darnielle to explore love, loss,
faith, doubt and “things from which people don’t and can’t recover.”
We talked with Darnielle about his struggles with religion
and his embrace of the Bible.
turned to the Bible to help you cope with health problems and the death of
friends and loved ones. Were you surprised to find it so comforting?
DARNIELLE: Well, I’m not sure that I did find it comforting
– I think the Bible is a text I turn to, or a place I go, looking for one thing
and ending up getting another. One thinks of comfort as a soothed or placated
state, but there’s also the comfort of just knowing where you stand. I get that
from the Psalms, and from some of the prophets, and from the parables of the
New Testament, sometimes. And there’s also the comfort of paradox, which you
also get in the parables, and in the Pentateuch.
it about the Bible that you’re drawn to?
That’s a very broad question. The Bible is a whole field
unto itself: drama, intrigue, philosophy, history, object-lesson, cautionary
tale, example of what’s wrong with doctrines in general & simultaneously a
possible example of some of what’s right with them. I guess I would say its
breadth is a big part of the appeal. It compares to Shakespeare or Chaucer for
me in that way, but of course it’s a lot bigger: people don’t, overnight, cast
off the lives they lead and take up “The Tempest.” So it has this really
powerful weight that comes prepackaged with it. I don’t think it can be
treated just as literature. Or, if it can, it demonstrates
that literature is a lot more than some subject to be studied: it changes
people, lives, history.
described yourself in the past as a non-believer. Would you still say that?
Yes, I guess. I would prefer to believe. I wish I did. I am
ready at any time to be converted, but honestly, it’s not in me to get there, I
seems that whenever a musician focuses too much on religion they become
marginalized by being put in the “Christian” category. Were you at all worried
Not really. If you’re any kind of a writer at all, you have
to write from what inspires you. I learned that from The Sunset Tree. I get the good stuff if I listen to what my
writing urges are telling me and just follow them. Writing The Sunset Tree, I assumed that everyone was going to hate it.
Before that album came out, I was applying for day jobs, because I thought,
this is it; when that record comes out it’s over for me. But people liked it
better than anything I’d ever done. So the lesson to me was – this is corny
sounding – write from the heart or the gut or whatever blood-level place you
can reach deepest down to. And for me, right now, that was in Biblical images
and ideas, in liturgical moods.
also a big fan of metal, where musicians write far more about Satan than God.
Why is it OK to write about Satan, yet if you write about God, people are
You’re transgressing if you write about Satan or evil, and
transgression is the natural home of writing. Also, God kind of has a corner on
the market, and a lot of the people pushing a God agenda are really tiresome
and insufferable. … I think, in a country where nominal Christians are passing
laws making it illegal to marry the person you love, it’s reasonable for people
to say “you know, I don’t want to really hear about this God, if his
followers are so hateful.”
do you hope fans take away from this album?
The main thing, and this sounds like a stock answer but it’s
true, is always: I hope people are entertained; I hope people spend the better
part of an hour really caught up in the stories and the sounds. Beyond that, I
think the sort of pressure points of the album are “Matthew 25:21”, “Isaiah
45:23”, and “Hebrews 11:40”, and I hope that people find some comfort for pain
in those songs. Those are songs about pain and self-hate and grief and fighting
to keep from becoming bitter, to hold onto what makes you human, and I think a
lot of people like me have struggled with those sorts of emotions. I hope my
band and I manage to illuminate some tiny corner for a couple of people with
those songs – that someone finds something that casts a light somewhere for
them, for a minute or two.
That to me seems like a big thing to hope for, but I do hope
[Pictured above, L-R: Jon Wurster, John Darnielle, Peter
Hughes. Photo by Chrissy Piper]