John Darnielle is almost certain there is no God, but he can’t quite count himself as a nonbeliever.
“Isn’t it better to either be an atheist or a fundamentalist? Agnosticism’s the least glamorous theological position,” he laughs. “Anyone who says they never doubt is lying. But anyone who’s perfectly happy with there being no force of total love and forgiveness in the universe is also pretty foolish.”
Bookish singer/songwriter and cult icon, Darnielle has wrestled with spirituality for the nearly two decades he’s recorded as The Mountain Goats. The decision to base each track of his lush and melancholy new album, The Life of the World to Come, on Bible verses isn’t just an expression of his predilection for textual criticism. His chronic, tour-ending health problems (specifics of which haven’t been publicly disclosed) and the death of his mother-in-law provided ample grist for contemplation. “It’s the sort of stuff that makes you look very hard at what you feel about God and religion.”
For Darnielle, the God-less practice of religion is indispensable. He maintains a lifelong cultural connection to Catholicism, and prays the Rosary. But he forgoes dogmatic adherence to any set of rituals, focusing instead on the transcendent power of all things devotional. “I love going to Hare Krishna temples to chant,” he says. “I don’t really believe in it, but I believe in praying.” He pauses and exhales softly before continuing. “I believe in the spirit of prayer, and the process, and finding some way of acknowledging my own smallness in the infinite. So I still behave religiously, faith or no faith. I think it’s a good thing, and I enjoy it. But I think you need to engage beyond technical exercises.”
He shifts to a rapid staccato as he reconciles his humanism and religion: “My feminism is what came squarely up against my faith. It’s the biggest problem you face if you believe in both religion and the absolute equality of men and women.” And yet there’s no personal inconsistency for him in the new album’s sixth track, based on the 30th chapter and third verse of the “unapologetically patriarchal” book of Genesis, where Bilhah acts as a surrogate mother for Rachel. Darnielle calls it the most beautiful love story he’s ever read. “To me, it’s not about the subjugation of women, it’s about people who love each other expressing that love ‘off the grid.’”
The record’s closing track draws its title and narrative from the seventh chapter of Ezekiel, an Old Testament vision of the end of the world. Amidst that fire and brimstone, Darnielle finds redemption in the hard-won Biblical lessons. “There are plenty of people in the Bible who do things for which they shouldn’t be forgiven unless they beg, and they don’t,” he says. “Yet grace, divine or otherwise, absolves the most monstrous sins. If there is grace.”