The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth
When applied to most musicians “mature” is shorthand for “not as interesting,” but in the Mountain Goats’ case that backhanded translation doesn’t apply. It’s instructive to consider Transcendental Youth in the context of the band’s two recently reissued archival titles. Just as Paul McCartney was a member of Wings longer than the Beatles, and Carlton Fisk logged more time with the White Sox than Red Sox, John Darnielle’s “polished” period now outlasts his lo-fi credentials.
With 2002’s brilliant Tallahassee serving as the flashpoint, Darnielle’s Mountain Goats migrated from Panasonic boombox-recording cult darlings to, um, cult darlings capable of filling midsize halls. Along the way, Darnielle developed a fuller-bodied sound and a functioning trio – including Peter Hughes (late of the similarly literate Nothing Painted Blue) and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster.
The Hound Chronicles and Hot Garden Stomp (both essentially solo affairs and cassette-only, as was the case with most of Darnielle’s juvenilia) are among the earliest and rawest of Mountain Goats releases. Yet through the hiss a laundry list of Darnielle’s gradually realized aspirations are clearly audible – his reedy voice has mellowed only slightly, guest spots of naive violin are newly supplanted by Calexico-level horn charts, and the occasional Casiotone doodle has thankfully given way to stately piano.
But the Mountain Goats’ primary calling card, then as now, is Darnielle’s impeccable character sketches, usually of fringe everymen hiding in plain sight (“the loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you’re never going to see again,” he sings matter-of-factly on “Harlem Roulette”), delivered with an impeccable balance of the sympathetic and sardonic. Since honing his musical palette Darnielle has used the lyrical to push himself – structuring an album’s worth of songs on Biblical passages on The Life of the World to Come and taking an uncharacteristic autobiographical turn on The Sunset Tree.
Transcendental Youth doesn’t pursue the thematic consistency of those outings, but its recurring theme is the reckless – and likely inevitable – behavior of young adults. As such, the Goats dive into a heavier ratio of upbeat tempos to match the subjects’ racing pulses. The last several Mountain Goats albums have trafficked within a tight stylistic range, and thanks to that added spark Youth is one of the best of a good bunch. “Stay alive – just stay alive,” Darnielle implores from a distance on opening statement of intent “Spent Gladiator 1,” inspired by Amy Winehouse’s demise. It’s advice he’s managed to heed, both personally and musically.
The Mountain Goats