Music Reviews
Transcendental Youth

The Mountain Goats Transcendental Youth

(Merge) Rating - 7/10

John Darnielle has come a long way from the hissing tape splinters on the earliest Mountain Goats records. That’s not to say that he, nor the band, has conceded to mainstream production demands on their last few records, but their recent albums have definitely sounded better than any in their pre-Tallahassee period.  The fact is that the churning analog rawness which figured so prominently in those early albums was a large part of the reason why fans gravitated towards the band.  At a time when artists, even those circling the indie consciousness, were looking at tighter and more refined production, The Mountain Goats kept the DIY aesthetic alive by channeling the spirit of Daniel Johnston and Jandek.  And as such, the band came under intense criticism when they seemingly abandoned their lo-fi tendencies on 2002’s Tallahassee.  To some it felt as though the band has completely turned their backs on their core fans, but others understood that this refinement was a natural progression for them as a group.  The band had exhausted the limits of what that particular aesthetic held for The Mountain Goats.  Any further iteration of that particular formula could have been seen as leading to creative atrophy.

Despite the fact that the band’s recent albums seem immaculate compared to those formative releases, their entire discography feels connected, as if one album feels emotionally and spiritually tied to the next in line.  Even when the transition was made from the decidedly lo-fi aesthetics of Zopilote Machine and Sweden to the purposeful fidelity of The Sunset Tree and We Shall All Be Healed, the band retained that fundamental connection—it could even be considered a familial lineage—within their music that has been passed down from their debut to their newest release, the pristine sounding Transcendental Youth.

The band continues this trend of immaculate production as opener Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1, a tribute to the late Amy Winehouse, ratchets up the brilliantly vivid acoustic guitar alongside Darnielle’s fevered yelp, with him spouting lyrics like “make up magic spells/we wear them like protective shells” and “Don't hurt anybody on your way up to the light” while drummer Jon Wurster hammers out a frantic beat alongside him.  But curiously, given the subject matter, there seems to be a lack of substance to the song.  Even the tone seems off somehow.  Musically, it sounds great, but lyrically, Darnielle seems to be trading in his normally intimate confessions and intense self-introspection for something akin to generalized platitudes and serial vagaries.  He has proven time and time again to be one of indie rock’s most tirelessly relevant lyricists, but on Amy, and to varying degrees on other songs here, he just seems to be going through the motions.  That being said, the record sounds so amazing that it’s almost makes up for his occasionally weak lyrics.

He fares better on a track like Cry for Judas, with its blaring brass horns and elastic bass line.  Here he finds his footing with lines such as “but I am just a broken machine/and I do things that I don't really mean” and “feel the storm every night/hope it passes by/hallucinate a shady grove where Judas went to die” which clearly show that he’s lost none of his innate ability to evoke entire worlds with just a few words.  There is a depth of feeling and an oddly sincere concern in these lines that few other singers could have expressed, but Darnielle makes it seem easy.  Though if you look at another track like Transcendental Youth, you find that the same musical accompaniment which made Judas so memorable seems to stand in place, finding no suitable avenue in which to go, and so it just remains stationary, quickly becoming forgettable.  There are no favors done lyrically as lines like “shroud ourselves in the cosmos/let the music play/bright star of the morning/shine on his rising way” sound like they should hit with the force of a hurricane but barely manage to elicit an arched eyebrow.  Darnielle knows better than to let that happen.

The album does have a great mid-section though with White Cedar, Until I Am Whole, and Night Light proving that the band still does introspective indie rock better than almost any other band in the past fifteen years.  White Cedar resolves around solemn piano notes and long drawn-out horns which feel as though they’re soundtracking the lost romance of some great couple in history.  Darnielle and the band get basic on Until I Am Whole, weaving an ominous tale that chronicles the spiraling despair and longed for redemption of its narrator.  Using a simple acoustic guitar, bare thumping drums, and a stark bass snap, the band infuses the song with a tangible sense of weariness that feels as real to the listener as it does to its protagonist.  Night Light drapes itself in a dense shroud of wavering distortion and sharply strummed guitar, while the band races through the night, keeping pace with the demons they hope to expose.

For all its lyrical stumbles, Transcendental Youth manages to succeed because the band understands these kinds of narrative story-songs inside and out.  Darnielle has made a living out of inhabiting the minds of the characters which populate their records.  And though they may not reach the highs of past songs like Damn These Vampires from last year’s All Eternals Deck or Family Happiness from The Coroner’s Gambit, there is still plenty here for fans of The Mountain Goats to sink their teeth into.  It may not quite live up to our expectations given their phenomenal run of releases in the past few years but it certainly has me holding my breath, wondering what next year will bring.