The Mountain Goats
Oct 08, 2012 Web Exclusive
Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle has a new baby, but that hasn’t softened his love for dark subject matter. (“Please,” he wrote on his website in July. “May the baby grow up to spit in my face if I should pose that hard.”) Transcendental Youth, despite its frequent use of a punchy horn section, is bleak, even by Darnielle’s standards. It’s also one of the band’s best.
Survival, long one of The Mountain Goats’ favorite themes, returns here. The record is bookended by “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” and “Spent Gladiator 2,” both of which feature Darnielle matter-of-factly singing “Stay alive, just stay alive.” In the misleadingly jaunty “Counterfeit Florida Plates,” a paranoiac describes his day (“Dig through the trash, sleep on the grates/and watch for the cars with the counterfeit Florida plates”), complete with finding a tree to lean on when hunger becomes too great. Survival at any cost.
Arrangement-wise, Transcendental Youth finds The Mountain Goats the furthest yet from Darnielle’s boombox-and-acoustic guitar days, employing not only a full band but that horn section, which offers dramatic grandiosity, lively support, and ironic counterpoint, depending on the track. But these are still Mountain Goats songs, which means they are character studies of the highest order. Darnielle wasn’t called “America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist” by The New Yorker for nothing; these are short stories with unique points of view, albeit ones with a common theme of determination in the midst of despair.
If there’s a downside to The Mountain Goats’ inexhaustibility—Transcendental Youth is the band’s fourth record in the past five years—it’s that the excellence is getting predictable. However, one gets the feeling that Darnielle, like the narrators of his new record, keeps running to survive, at any cost.
Author rating: 7.5/10
Average reader rating: 7/10