When John Darnielle sat down at the Yamaha keyboard on stage at Calvin College’s auditorium last spring, his fingers began to play, “O Bless the Lord, God of Our Salvation.” The lead singer of the indie rock band The Mountain Goats told the audience at the Festival of Faith and Writing, “I’m a religious obsessive, so whenever I’m in a place like this, I want to play hymns.”
When Darnielle heads out on tour this month, theater and bar crowds will also get a taste of the religious themes and biblical references that pulse through his literary and often semi-autobiographical lyrics.
He reminded me twice that his 2009 release The Life of the World to Come appeared on CT’s list of best albums that year. Back then, the singer referred to himself as a “Catholic atheist.” These days, a 49-year-old father of two, he describes himself as a theist who prays to Jesus.
Regardless of the labels, Darnielle can quote Scripture as well as his songs would suggest (each of the dozen tracks on The Life of the World to Come had Bible citations as titles, and more than 100 songs in The Mountain Goats canon reference specific passages, creeds, hymns, and teachings), and he has an un-ironic appreciation for Christian contemporary music veteran Amy Grant and the late Rich Mullins. He said Grant’s collection, available on iTunes, saved his life during a dark period several years ago.
But what makes so many Christians drawn to The Mountain Goats’ music? According to reviewer Joel Heng Hartse, Darnielle brings an “unflinching gaze at truth” and a “large-hearted openness to the beauty of the world, the goodness of life and humanity” that resonate with believers over his decades-long career. “Even a song like ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,’ the chorus of which is literally ‘Hail Satan,’ is really a song about how even people who seem beyond the pale of goodness are deserving of love and understanding,” Hartse said.
Those themes have carried over into Darnielle’s 2014 novel, Wolf in White Van, a National Book Award nominee. Always a captivating storyteller in his lyrics—with a lot from his own life to pull from, including a troubled relationship with an abusive stepdad, drug addiction, and experience working in a psychiatric hospital—Darnielle has continued to write. His next book, Universal Harvester, is scheduled to release in February.
Ahead of The Mountain Goats’ fall tour, the lead singer spoke about what spirituality looks like in his life now, from praying with his four-year-old son to grappling with God’s message in the Book of Jonah.
What are the spiritual rhythms in your life? How do you find yourself reflecting and connecting?
I’m the only theist in my house except for my older son. He’s four. He used to like to pray with me at night. He was going through a rough patch after his brother was born… I would stop to pray in the middle of the night when he’d be awake and struggling. And it would work. It would distract him long enough.
I’ll tell you a story that happened recently. We had a cat named Roz. Both our cats died recently, and they were old. They’d been with us since Iowa. This is so interesting because there’s a lot of levels to this… I had this prayer experience with my son, and Roz died. Children can’t understand that, but you want to tell them where the cat went. So I said, “Roz went to be with the Lord,” and we buried her in the backyard.