Review: Transcendental Youth – The Mountain Goats

10/04/2012

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In the two years since I first discovered the Mountain Goats, my intense enthusiasm for John Darnielle’s fine-drawn poetic storytelling and surgically precise musical accompaniment has felt like a source of isolation; not unlike — I tell myself — the characters Darnielle tends to sing about. It would be the definition of absurdity to make comparisons between such acute pleasures and the bludgeoning noise of top 40 radio; but even in the supposedly more discerning world of independent music — even independent folk — Darnielle’s unassuming ballads feel as far removed from the instrumentally dense, thematically-transparent twangs of Mumford and Sons, the Avett Brothers, and even Fleet Foxes as one can get. Nearly every Mountain Goats album (or hell, even most individual tracks) is some kind of hyper-specific, intricately poeticized story. Consider the number of people who really love reading modern poetry: that’s pretty much your audience here.

Anyway, I know that the band is critically acclaimed and at least popular enough to justify releasing an album every year and a half or so, but aside from attending a single concert, I don’t think I’ve ever actually met another Mountain Goats fan. I definitely couldn’t tell you what a typical one looks like — how old they are, how smart they are, what their social standing is, etc. (judging by the subjects of the songs, it could be anyone from drug addicts to Roman gladiators to aliens) On the several occasions when I’ve tried popping The Sunset Tree or Heretic Pride into the CD player with my friends in my car, I was definitely the only one straining my vocal chords jubilantly to This Year or Sax Rohmer #1. It’s not a complaint per se. At least the music makes such nonconformity feel like a badge of honor; like Jeff and Cyrus playing death metal in Denton. But what’s surprising about Transcendental Youth (the fourth Goats collaboration between Darnielle, Peter Hughes, and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster) is that, while certainly speaking out for society’s lonely, outcast, and unrelatable, it also feels strangely like something that could become definitive for my entire generation.

Take the opening track, titled Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1. Darnielle pleads, either to or from the perspective of controversially self-destructive pop icon Amy Winehouse, “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive. Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away.” Such a pronouncement, whether authorial or in character, certainly channels a desire among my fellow twenty-somethings for YOLO-esque simplicity in increasingly uncertain times. But it also celebrates Winehouse as one of Darnielle’s timeless self-destructing muses (like Judy Garland in The Autopsy Garland on last year’s All Eternal’s Deck). “Climb limits past the limits. Jump in front of trains all day. And stay alive. Just stay alive,” he pleads contradictorily.

This show-stopping opener teeters precariously on either side of gushingly celebratory and ironically condescending, but lest we accuse Darnielle of being insincere, remember this is the precise balance he struck when singing about his own, very real childhood suffering in the 2005 masterpiece The Sunset Tree. In fact, he should probably be called out for how similar these lyrics resemble his triumphant screed, “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” It also serves as a kind of mission statement for the rest of the album. Darnielle’s never been one to simplify human suffering or find catharsis in platitudes. His most iconic lyrics are the ones that channel pure hyperbolic rage, as in No Children’s “I hope you die! I hope we both die!” and The Best Death Metal Band Out of Denton’s, “Hail Satan! Hail Satan tonight!” Above all else he celebrates the irreducible complexity of the the individual, and those most dangerous, unacceptable expressions of that individuality.

In that vein Youth goes on to recognize even more casualties from the ten o’ clock news, including a meth addict in the heartrending Lakeside View Apartment Suites and an amateur outlaw in Night Light. Other notable inclusions are rock icon Frankie Lymon on the night he died of a heroin overdose (in the album’s lyrical highlight Harlem Roulette), a delightful toe tapper about the Diaz brothers from Scarface, and a couple of sympathetic references to the Bible’s two main villains, Judas and Satan (does anyone rave in pissed off Christianese better than Darnielle?). These are all the usual suspects for a Mountain Goats album, but the suffering and imagery that unites them — not to mention the standout inclusion of a jazzy horn section courtesy of Matthew E. White — makes this outing feel, if not more substantial, certainly more accessible than its three immediate predecessors.

The final, titular, and most memorable track, Transcendental Youth, plays like something you’d expect to dance to in a club in the forties or fifties. As a Fellini fan, I was tempted to envision all the miserable loners from the previous eleven tracks holding hands and dancing together in a circle around a spaceship. The lyrics, on the other hand, aren’t much sunnier than what’s come before. “Sing in the night, in the nameless dark. Father long gone, but we bear his mark.” But I suppose there’s something triumphant simply in the attitude the narrator adopts in his misery. He might not be able to muster up a claim that things are going to get better, but at least he’s still determined to “rise in the darkness of the gathering day.” That’s about as simplistically optimistic as the Mountain Goats are going to get. As Darnielle contends in Roulette, “Every dream’s a good dream. Even awful dreams are good dreams if you’re doing it right.”

9/10

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