Review Summary: The freshest, most well crafted Mountain Goats album in years.
The Mountain Goats have had a productive career. Although 20 years is by no means a short period of time, for a band that for the most part consisted of just one man, more than 400 songs is a lot. It wasn’t just that there was always a steady supply of new music coming in that attracted listeners to The Mountain Goats; it was the creeping sense of dread in every song, the sincerity in both John Darnielle’s lyrics and vocals and the emotional impact of almost every line. By understanding what they do best, The Mountain Goats have been able to not only release music consistently, but to consistently release good music, and Transcendental Youth does the same.
Despite the fact that they aren’t trying to do anything vastly different this time around, Transcendental Youth stands out among the many other Mountain Goats albums because it sounds so fresh. Although John is writing lyrics the way he always has, they seem stronger and more fully thought out. Although the guitar playing isn’t much more complex than it was last year or 10 years before that, it seems to serve every song better. Even though their discography is expansive and spans across 2 decades, Transcendental Youth feels like a band just now discovering what they can really do, and because of that it’s more engaging and more memorable.
A large part of this fresh sound is due to the added instrumentation. On several tracks John is accompanied by a full horn section, a decision that had potential to go wrong but luckily only adds to the power of the album. Because part of what makes Mountain Goats music so listenable and addictive is the sense of intimacy created by just a man and a guitar, this new approach could have ended up taking away from these songs and instead served as a distraction. Luckily though, it simply adds to them, allowing them to breathe and in many cases, allowing them to build. The climax of “White Cedar” for example is one of the most impactful sections of any Mountain Goats song to date, and “Cry For Judas” actually relies on the orchestral instruments for a large part of its melody, and combined with some strong lyrics we’re left with one of the album’s highlights. This new sound is makes every song a little deeper but also makes them more accessible, a mix that works exceptionally well.
Lyrics have always been an important part of Mountain Goats songs. They’re what make nearly every single one so powerful, and fortunately the lyrics on this album are arguably stronger than they’ve ever been. It was said that the album would have a strong focus on “outcasts, recluses, the mentally ill and others struggling in ordinary society” and it shows. It seems that this theme is something John is passionate about, and because of that he sounds interested and enthusiastic in every song. In “Cry For Judas” he sings “We are the ones who don’t slow down at all, and there’s nobody there to catch us when we fall.” In “White Cedar” he sings “I’ll be reborn, someday someday, if I wait long enough.” John sounds more confident now than ever, and as a whole the band sounds more focused.
There are several things that make Transcendental Youth a superb album, but what stands out the most is the fact that it sounds so new while doing very little to create that sound. In other words, it’s effortlessly excellent. If it hadn’t been decided before, this album solidifies The Mountain Goats’ position as one of the most consistent bands around today, regardless of how they achieve that consistency. They’ve also now mastered the art of finding the perfect balance between introducing new elements and keeping familiar ones, and it seems that at this point it would be impossible for them to make an album that’s even average, let alone bad. The Mountain Goats have had a long career, and this album feels less like just another part of that career, but more like the beginning of a new one.