- Arts & Literature
- Science & Technology
By Nick Megaw
21 years and thirteen albums (plus another two with The Extra Lens) into their career, most artists might be expected to slow down a little bit. Not so John Darnielle, the singer, songwriter and only constant member of the Mountain Goats. Album number fourteen, Transcendental Youth, comes only 18 months after 2011’s All Eternals Deck, but rather than running out of ideas, shows a band developing further and increasingly making the most of the full-band setup first adopted on Heretic Pride in 2008.
Opener ‘Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1’ sets the tone for the rest of the album; not anything radically new, but a very good example of what the Mountain Goats do best – verbose alt-folk stories that are mostly about outcasts and suffering without ever becoming too morose. As the name suggests, ‘Spent Gladiator 1’ was inspired by the death of Amy Winehouse, and much of the album deals with similarly troubled individuals, from drug addicts and dealers to washed-up former teen idols. At times the lyrics get pretty dark – which for a band that has released albums about child abuse and meth addiction is saying something – ‘Lakeside View Apartment Suites’ shows Darnielle’s ability to be simultaneously unpleasant and moving, as he describes the life of a drug addict sleeping on the kitchen floor with “a little greasepaint smudge” under each eye and throwing up in the sink before a rare trip into the outside world. In ‘Until I Am Whole’, meanwhile, the depressed voice watches his hopes drown, and ‘Counterfeit Florida Plates’ follows a paranoid schizophrenic who can’t find somewhere safe to sleep.
Not that the album is uniformly depressing. ‘Cry For Judas’ illustrates Darnielle’s ability to make a song sound oddly triumphant even as he shouts about how “all is lost”; ‘The Diaz Brothers’, meanwhile, sounds genuinely upbeat, despite being about a pair of drug dealers who get murdered in Scarface, and in ‘White Cedar’ the narrator shows defiance in the face of death. This is the song that benefits most from the addition of a horn section, the biggest musical change on Transcendental Youth, greatly adding to its impact and turning it into a song that couldn’t be mistaken for one from any previous Mountain Goats release.
The addition of the horns, together with slightly less harsh delivery from Darnielle, makes Transcendental Youth probably one of the Mountain Goats’ most accessible albums, but, though never as extreme as on some of All Eternals Deck or The Life of the World to Come, Darnielle’s nasal speak/sing/yell style is never going to be to everyone’s liking. On the flip-side, for existing Mountain Goats fans, the more visceral style of tracks like ‘Estate Sale Sign’ or ‘Psalms 40:2’ might be missed. Still, if that is the case, you shouldn’t have to wait too long for them to release something else.