SEVEN DAYS OF THE NEW MOUNTAIN GOATS ALBUM: DAY 3
There’s a lot about home on The Life of the World to Come.
I spent about a year in grad school working on a thesis show that became a look at place and location-based identity. This was a show that definitely owed something to being written primarily in January 2002, as pointed a time in history as any during my young life. I wrote songs about being oblivious to my surroundings and about white American privilege that had been recently shattered/redefined (though I didn’t know that the latter was what I was doing until, perhaps, today). I got pretty obsessed with the idea that where you come from, geographically, can often be a defining characteristic. And also, that the disintegration of traditional neighborhoods means that so many of my peers pick new apartments about as often as purchasing a new winter coat, and using the same coach-shopping criteria (what’s the cheapest thing I can get that also looks cool?). Home as identity seems to be, in my opinion, a disappearing notion. And it’s also something that I long for.
So on this album, Darnielle writes songs about creating homes for those who need them. He instructs, “tell them no one’s going to hurt them here.” Here’s a guy who has made no secret (at least since The Sunset Tree, if not before) of his abusive childhood brought on by his stepfather, and it would be easy to connect the dots from a broken sense of home and family to writing songs about, well, inventing a new family, if needed. “I used to live. Here.”
I do think that this kind of reliance on biography, while useful, doesn’t dig deeper. I think that there’s more going on here, because no writer as talented as Darnielle takes the easy way out (or if they do, it’s in small doses, not an entire album’s worth). And I’ve spent only three days with this album, so I won’t claim that I’ve got it all figured out.
But here’s the thing: JD is tricksy. Pumping this album full of Christianity and daring a listener to deal with bible-verses-as-titles subverts the norm in today’s indie rock culture in a similar way that “Like a Prayer” shook the mainstream twenty years ago. In the late 80’s, Madonna caused quite the stir; but in the late aughts, the rock fan equivalent of being up in arms is simply crossed arms and a raised eyebrow, Stephen Colbert calling Darnielle out on his Comedy Central show.
We get the biblical stuff easily, because it’s right there. But you’ve got this stuff about place and home as well, below the surface. And in “Genesis 3:23,” when he tells the story of breaking in to a former home, moving room to room, and punctuating the song with “I used to live. Here,” perhaps we’ve got the key to the whole thing. It’s the first single, and the easiest to sing along to–and maybe it completes this circle. Maybe what he’s telling us is, “look, I used to live here, in this religion, in these beliefs, in this line of thinking,” a song that subverts the overall theme of the record and then simultaneously serves as a metaphor for the entire thing.