ALBUM REVIEW: The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth

The Mountain Goats Transcendental Youth

Written for the 405

Most songwriters, eleven years into their career, could probably fit their cumulative recorded lyrics into a reasonably hefty notebook. With John Darnielle, the man who is The Mountain Goats, you’re looking at a collection to rival that of the British Library.

Not unlike the catalogue of that St Pancras landmark, Darnielle’s songs have been produced on everything from shoddy, amateur materials (early albums recorded solo, direct to tape, on a boombox) to pristine, neatly bound editions (later full-band studio recordings); of course, it’s always the actual material that’s important. And it’s that material which has won the band a cult following over the course fifty seven albums, singles, EPs, compilations and collaborations released across the past decade.

A storyteller in the most traditional sense, Darnielle’s songs exist in a similar tradition to those of his contemporaries the Decemberists, albeit with characters and events very much of the here and now: tales of broken marriages, drug addicts, teenage runaways. Often he draws on his own life experiences, although only a handful of those fifty seven records can be said to be fully autobiographical.

On Transcendental Youth we’re getting the fiction, twelve vignettes, dipping in and out of the lives of several different characters, like a Robert Altman film. Each of the protagonists are outcasts, former child stars, the mentally ill, and other such people living on the fringes of society in Washington state.

Darnielle renders the stories of these characters using vivid imagery, basic but effective modern folk arrangements, the frontman on acoustic guitar and/or piano, with help from bass player Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster (also of Superchunk), and his own slightly nasal delivery. On the understated ‘Lakeside View’, we’re given a tour of a drug den, a place where the days are “like dominoes, all in a line,” with some brushed drums and slow piano; ‘Cry For Judas’ is a righteous, rebellious yell, backed by some triumphant brass (“Mistreat your altar boys for long enough / And this is what you get!”); dignified, horn-lead ‘White Cedar’ is a defiant declaration by a patient on lock-down that “I’ll be reborn someday, someday / If I wait long enough”; and the frenetically-strummed ‘Harlem Roulette’ is an imagined monologue by forgotten 50s teen sensation Frankie Lymon.

Whilst there’s no particular narrative to the album’s story, there is a arc of developing desperation: on opener ‘Amy (AKA Spent Gladiator 1)’ the singer implores us to “stay alive” through any exciting act that takes our fancy, whileas the same plea on the penultimate, more downbeat ‘Spent Gladiator 2’ sounds much more like a mantra needed to survive. By the closing title track, the narrator “despises this town,” which seems to have ground down so many of its inhabitants.

As an introduction to the perhaps intimidating world of the Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth is as good a place to start as any; many of Darnielle’s favourite subjects are covered, and in poetic verse, with capable musical backing. For existing fans, it’s another solid addition to the library.

8/10

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