Artist: Mountain Goats

Album: Transcendental Youth

John Darnielle (who alone or accompanied is the Mountain Goats) is my favorite folk songwriter of the current century, releasing a good-to-great new album every year and a half. He was an excellent lyricist as far back as the 1990s, declaiming away in a reedy voice over a hundred mountain_goats_transcendental_youthscratchy-sounding voice-and-guitar variants on the John Darnielle Fast Song and the John Darnielle Slow Song (Now With New Words [™]); kudos to you if you feel like listening to them. In 2000, with the Coroner’s Gambit (still the best representation of his younger more aggressive self), he began a process of making his records sound good: each album adding cleaner production, less-reluctant use of a supporting piano or cello here and there, more interestingly textured guitar lines, and eventually even a band, and melodies that didn’t all sound the same. The first Mountain Goats album I’d enjoy even if the lyrics were generic was probably We Shall All Be Healed (2004). The first two Mountain Goats albums *in a row* that I’d expect to enjoy that way were All Eternals Deck (2011) and, now, Transcendental Youth. There’s horns here, for the first time, on several songs, peppy or solemn or decorative or insistent. Piano-based songs mix with fervent guitar ones; sometimes there’s lead and rhythm guitar both; the drums wait their turn patiently, knowing they will get called on, and be permitted to serve. Sometimes, as on Amy a.k.a. Spent Gladiator 1, Darnielle’s vocals lead the charge; other times, as on White Cedar, his voice steps carefully, refusing to tread on fragile arrangements and risk crushing them.

His songs are scenarios; pugnacious character studies. I was going to say “stories”, but that’s wrong; they’re part snapshot, part expressionist painting.  We get little details of the drug trade engaged in by the narrator of the lovely, atypically piano-and-VH1-atmospherics-driven Lakeside View Apartment Suite, but “Downtown north past the airport/ a dream in switchgrass and concrete/ Three grey floors of smoky windows/ facing the street” makes no distinction between newspaper reportage and imagery. Neither does “Just before I leave, I throw up in the sink/ One whole life recorded in disappearing ink/ and Ray left a message, thumbtacked to the door/ I don’t even bother trying to read them anymore”. But “You can’t judge us, you’re not the judge/ Lakeside View, for my whole crew”: it is his narrators’ right to mislay their lives.

They usually do. Transcendental Youth, like all Mountain Goats albums, allies itself with misfits: the “sad and angry… who don’t slow down at all, and there’s nobody to catch us when we fall”. Some, like rock-n-roll singer Frankie Lymon (right before his fatal 1968 heroin overdose) in the jangle-folk anthem Harlem Roulette, have success and fame, and are isolated that way. Some, like the inmate of White Cedar, are isolated by mental illness — or at least self-perceptions radically at odds with a consensus view. Some are isolated by love — many past Darnielle songs focused on mutually destructive married couples, but here instead we’re given the ominous rocker Night Light, driven by organ feedback and drum fills, where the love has become one way (“I was a red dot blinking on a screen overhead/ and then the room went dark/ Dream of maybe waking up someday/ wanting you less than I do/ This is a dream, though/ it’s never gonna come true”). Several times, frustratingly, it’s not really clear. The Diaz Brothers is a rock song in the style of circa-1980 Billy Joel, which I’m afraid I think is pretty neat, but why we should have “mercy for the Diaz brothers” is unknown. Except, sure, one should normally have mercy: a worthy notion, just not much of a story.

Amy a.k.a. Spent Gladiator 1 is mostly 2nd-person (to the late young blues-rocker Amy Winehouse) instead of first, and the purest rallying call of his career. “Play with matches if you think you need to play with matches/ Seek out hidden places where the fire burns hot and bright/ Find where the heat’s unbearable, and stay there if you have to/ Don’t hurt anybody on your way up to the light/ And stay alive”. In case her ghost prefers more specificity, “People might laugh at your tattoos/ When they do, get new ones in completely garish hues”. But “just stay alive”. Which is probably easier if you don’t, like Ms. Winehouse, or many Darnielle narrators, court alcohol poisoning on a daily basis.

My favorite Mountain Goats album is still We Shall All Be Healed, the only one with a narrative arc pointing to redemption (peculiar, pugnacious redemption). It was followed with two albums of autobiography (the Sunset Tree and Get Lonely) that — while slower and less interesting as music to my tastes — shared his childhood enough to clarify his attraction to scars, and his first marriage enough to explain his couplehood songs. As well as letting us admire, all the more, his sympathy for the scars of all the people who *aren’t* him.

I’m told his current marriage is happy. I know he has a baby now for the first time, and refused as a point of pride to soften Transcendental Youth‘s songwriting by suddenly pointing to bright spots in the world now. I get that; the timing would be too convenient, intellectually dubious in the extreme. What I’d’ve liked is if he’d tried already something like that two albums ago, just for variety. His blog proves he can, at minimum, burst with happy and funny enthusiasm about other people’s music (extreme metal, slick R&B, Radiohead, nothing you’d guess). Touches of that could help answer the question “Stay alive for what?”. But three billion years of evolution haven’t asked stupid questions like that; sometimes, maybe, we need to reach out to each other before anyone has time to give a good reason.

– Brian Block

To see the rest of our favorites, visit our Favorite Albums of 2012 page!