Few artists are as prolific as The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle. Where others might have prodigious stretches, Darnielle’s in it for the long haul: the famously dyspeptic songwriter’s output is up to a staggering 14 albums by this, the band’s 18th year of existence. Though his music is best known for addressing heartbreak and self-destruction, Transcendental Youth finds Darnielle playing a new tune — happiness.
That’s not to say that the album doesn’t consider deep and often moody ideas. The music spans from the perversely defiant cheer of opener “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” (“Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive”) to a soaring acceptance of mortality on the titular closer, whose characters “shroud ourselves in the cosmos” before closing on a love note to the listener: “by the time you receive this, we’ll be gone,” a pleasant benediction leading back into real life.
Darnielle has always been known for articulate lyrics, and they’re clearer than they’ve ever been here in his articulate tenor. “Harlem Roulette” opens with bittersweet guitar, centering around a chorus that explains that “the loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you’re never going to see again.” Things are still decidedly optimistic, though. “Every dream’s a good dream/ even awful dreams are good dreams/ If you’re doing it right,” he gently opines.
The strikingly enunciated “Counterfeit Florida Plates” starts with a jokingly mundane image: “Steal some sunscreen from the CVS/ Use too much and make a great big mess.” A series of imperatives, the track recalls the lyrical style of All Eternals Deck’s “Birth of Serpents”, while also sharing its earworm qualities. “Wait for the coming disaster/ I could do this all day,” Darnielle whistles, almost obscenely upbeat in the face of doom.
Transcendental Youth also features the Mountain Goats backed by horns for the first time. The brassy chorus lends something of the divine to the songs, an appropriately grand frame for the richly illustrated tapestry within. Led by upcoming fall tour opener Matthew E. White (he of CoS’s Top Star-earning Big Inner), the horn section weaves in and out, most notably warming tracks like “In Memory of Satan”, gilding the intro to “Cry to Judas”, and giving a retro, languid evening club vibe to the closer, “Transcendental Youth”.
Darnielle’s happiness isn’t to be confused with naÃ¯veté. “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” is so tenderly sung, it’s painful in its vulnerability. On “In Memory of Satan”, the narrator “got my paintbox out last night/ Stayed up late and wrecked this place/ Woke up on the floor again/ Cell phone stuck to the side of my face.” A lyrical cousin to the chorus of The Sunset Tree’s “Love Love Love”, “Cry to Judas” glides in on those aforementioned horns before pronouncing, “some things you do just to see how bad they’ll make you feel.”
But though they struggle, Darnielle’s characters make their own luck in the end. “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” exhorts us to “let people call you crazy for the choices that you make/ Jump in front of trains all day and stay alive/ Just stay alive,” though we should “[not] hurt anybody on your way up to the light.” Later, “Spent Gladiator 2” pleads earnestly for more of the same impossible wish: “Just stay alive/ Stay forever alive.”
Stylistically, these tracks will mesh well with the rest of the Goats’ catalog, and it’ll be a pleasure to hear the new material live. It’s perennially refreshing to hear the work of someone who so obviously does not care what critics think of him; Darnielle’s music reliably gives you the world from his eyes. Anyone who was concerned that fatherhood would lighten his contemplative mood past the point of return will be relieved to find him still thinking deep thoughts — but with a more survivalist perspective. Said Darnielle to Rolling Stone, “that is what I hope I have the fortitude to tell my son to his face: ‘You do whatever you have to do to be happy. Your job as a human being is to be true to yourself.’” No one could ever accuse Darnielle of not following his own advice.
Essential Tracks: “Harlem Roulette”, “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”, and “Transcendental Youth”