Review Summary: With Transcendental Youth, growth proves exponential. John Darnielle has stepped up his game and created a two-dimensional aural force.
John Darnielle can be summed up as a songwriter in one word: prolific. Transcendental Youth marks his tenth full-length album as The Mountain Goats since the 2000s, with four others prior to the new millennium. He’s come a long way from the days of recording tunes via boom box, acting as the definition of lo-fi, and the extent of his growth has only recently come to notable fruition.
Admittedly, I have always preferred his lo-fi work. In fact, I could not get myself to enjoy his produced, full-band work simply because I associated John Darnielle with the romanticized imagery of a singular lone-ranger type with only an acoustic guitar in arms. It’s not that he stopped making good music, only that I could not cleanse myself of that bias and listen to his newer releases objectively.
But now, thanks to Transcendental Youth, I can say good riddance to that bias, a testament to the greatness of this work. When “Cry for Judas” was released, I listened to it expecting to think in accordance with that bias. Instead, I found myself tapping my foot and wholly enjoying the experience. The song features glorious horns, harmonies, and a booming chorus. All of these things would prove to be prominent throughout the album, particularly on the beautiful harmonic horns in “White Cedar,” a song with sensitivity unexpected from Darnielle. Often times, the upbeat jazzy music juxtaposes the dark lyrics, which only makes it all the more interesting.
For those who are bigger fans of the older, less poppy, and more solitary Darnielle, don’t worry. “Spent Gladiator 2” and “Harlem Roulette” both offer tunes typical of his straightforward, acoustic method. However, it should be noted that these tracks lack the vitality of the catchier and more developed songs on the album. They are good in their own right, but in the context of the album, from a purely aural standpoint, they aren’t lively enough to keep up with some of the others.
One area with no room for doubt when it comes to The Mountain Goats is the lyrics. To quote humorist and friend of Darnielle, John Hodgman: “Transcendental Youth is full of songs about people who madly, stupidly, blessedly won’t stop surviving, no matter who gives up on them.” Death and conflict do not plague the album; instead, Darnielle gives hope and optimism through the narratives. It is not new territory for Darnielle. The album opens with, “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1,” which forms the foundation of its themes. Darnielle pleads “Just stay alive,” at all costs, in a refrain that carries the album on its back and then is heard on the sequential “Spent Gladiator 2,” some 25 minutes later. The abundance of underdog stories and individualism invites the memory of great classics such as “The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton,” a song with status that may one day be achieved by one of the tracks on this album.
With Transcendental Youth, growth proves exponential. Previously, especially on the earlier lo-fi Mountain Goats albums, the lyrics acted as the muscle that balanced out the simple chord strums. The dense lyrics carried the music which often contributed to the aesthetic of lo-fi recording. Now with significantly better resources, Darnielle had to step up his game as the creative force of The Mountain Goats. In many spots on the album, lyrical depth and bright musicianship find a way to coexist. He has stepped up his game and created a two-dimensional aural force. In doing so, he acts as the prime example for the title and themes of the album. In spite of his growing age, he found a way to remain youthful and live. The Mountain Goats are not dead. On the contrary, they are as lively as ever.