A Mountain Goats Masterpiece
Throughout its lifetime, The Mountain Goats (which primarily consists of songwriter/vocalist/guitarist John Darnielle) has cranked out songs with themes varying from sci-fi and mythological adventures to inescapable depression and self-loathing. Darnielle’s fourteenth studio album Transcendental Youth proudly floats between the two extremes, blending prose-like imagery and characterization with poignant, emotional themes—and it just might be his greatest triumph yet.
Transcendental Youth breezes through the basic components of a good record: variation, a “just-right” length, a powerful opening, and a satisfying conclusion. But its magic lies in the poetic quality of Darnielle’s songwriting. As the title suggests, this album is essentially a collection of character profiles. The youths it describes and their scenarios are familiar: PCP users’ blurred afternoons, buddies strutting around New York City, homeless kids sitting on subway grates. They might not all be likeable, but these characters are glaringly realistic. As listeners we immediately relate the images to our own experiences, and before we know it Darnielle’s got us cheering for his antiheroes through their struggles and victories.
Uniquely, the record also features a horn section. In “Cry For Judas,” they ring out a celebratory tune, an instrumental parallel to the track’s frustrated young protagonist who refuses to mature. However, in “Memory of Satan,” they wail softly, complementing anxiety-ridden laments. Though only a few songs present the brassy accents, their employment is purposeful and, therefore, powerful.
To name the best track would be to misunderstand Darnielle’s intention to demonstrate the universality of youth. But the title track might be called the heart of this great record. In traditional Mountain Goats fashion, it tells a tale of intense loathing for a banal town and the desire to leave without ever looking back. But the brass section creates a sense of hope, keeping it from becoming an angsty grumble. Imagine songs as records’ thesis statements—this one would be Transcendental Youth’s.
The Mountain Goats do nothing but grow with every record. It’s impossible to predict how Darnielle will top this one, but one can only hope it includes a rerecording of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton”—this time, with horns.