Tuesday, November 13, 2012

On Transcendental Youth

The new Mountain Goats record blares alive on its first track with fantastic advice: “do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive”. This leads to the most joyful, hopeful chorus John Darnielle has produced since The Sunset Tree. It’s an incredibly moving song, the first great pop songs on an album full of great pop songs. Transcendental Youth is the best tMG album in years. Be excited.

By the next track Danielle sounds like he’s standing on a corner throwing gang signs at passing cars.  He yelps like  a gangster “lakeside view for my whole crew”. TY is an album about dangerous people, although to be fair they’re mostly only harmful to themselves.
 It’s an album about the broken and beaten; the eternally fucked, but by some miracle not dead. It’s packed to the gills with mental illness and bad decisions.  Darnielle has written about these kinds of people before, but never before has he written an entire album about them. In many ways TY is a spiritual sequel to The Sunset Tree. A lot of these songs are about hurt people trying to heal.

Another really exciting thing about this album is that we can finally hear the Amy Grant influence. Maybe I was the only one waiting for that to creep into Darnielle’s songs, but nonetheless, it’s here. Darnielle has been talking about Amy Grant since at least 2007. In a recent interview with Stereogum ( Darnielle called her his “favorite living pop artist,” claiming to have 836 MB of her music on his hard drive.

This man is serious about his pop music. TY is the purest pop music the Mountain Goats have ever produced. For that reason the album has its detractors, but those people are full of shit. Art doesn’t always have to be hard. Pop music at its best is the closest to perfection music can ever get. When it’s combined with hopeful messages that don’t sound generic, and choruses that throw every kind of caution to the wind, it’s exhilarating. These are songs with simple structures, and catchy melodies, although at times a quite a bit darker than your standard top 40.  This is music that is going to save more than a few lives.

The sixth song on the record “Until I Am Whole”, is the closest the Mountain Goats have ever gotten to gospel. The song’s narrator sings about losing hope amid beautiful landscapes before launching into a simple chorus: “I think I’ll stay here/until I feel whole again”. It’s an odd bit of faith, a dream of things better. It’s pretty typical of the album’s subject matter, but the song is enchantingly beautiful in its simplicity. If this were a mainstream track it would probably be drowning in strings, but the song works well  propelled by a simple slow acoustic guitar with occasional piano flourishes. It also has an easy to miss drum beat. It’s played with understated skill.
The album also has its share of crowd pleasers: songs seemingly built to excite live crowds. “Cops and robbers” yelps Darnielle at the beginning of “The Diaz Brothers”, “strictly bargain lines”.  It’s impossible to know exactly what the hell Darnielle is singing about (other than that it’s a reference to Scarface) but the song is so propulsive and exciting it doesn’t matter. The song is full of jangly guitars, speedy pianos, and joy. It’s a highlight.

The music does occasionally veer close to adult contemporary territory. The lyrics manage to fix this by typically having enough bite to make the songs anything but boring. Granted, John Darnielle’s music misses almost as much as it hits these days (see the last album, All Eternals Deck, for an example)  but as long as he can produce something as good as Transcendental Youth every five years or so, his fan base will be around as long as he is.  Darnielle isn’t the same songwriter he was twenty, or even ten years ago, but when he’s on he’s as good as he’s ever been.

By Jeffrey Whitelaw. Mr. Whitelaw lives, works, and attends school in Seattle, Washington.  His new collection of poetry, Putting Cigarettes Out in My Sleep, is being release shortly by Gray Sky Micro Press. His other music writing can be found at and He is currently thinking of six ways to prove to you that you're wrong, but can be contacted at He can be reached and observed on Twitter here: @fever_