Review Summary: An achievement in pacing and cohesion above all else.
The Mountain Goats' latest installment to their sprawling discography is Transcendental Youth - an album whose success is ultimately chalked up to pacing and arrangement. The Mountain Goats have been around the block and back...and back again. They've been together for upwards of twenty years and they have confidently and definitely established their sound at this point. The only reason I mention this is because any truly drastic or surprising changes to the band's sound are absent on Transcendental Youth, and while listening one must pay attention to the subtle, between-the-lines details that define the record's greatness.
Specifically the album's structure; Transcendental Youth is a very self-aware record, knowing exactly when to speed things up, slow them down or even walk the line between the two. And instead of the album turning into a roller-coaster ride of fast-slow-fast-slow pacing, it switches things up when necessary and for added effect such as the transition to the softer "Harlem Roulette" following the records increasingly fast-paced first three tracks. It comes off as organic and fluid, and as such makes the album very much cohesive and immersive.
And though the music itself has not truly "changed" or taken a different direction, it is still tight as ever and has some great moments. Specifically the record's slower tracks and their masterful use of the piano and horns. "Harlem Roulette", "White Cedar" and the final track "Transcendental Youth" work together very naturally with these instruments and stand out as some of the album’s best tracks because of it. Additionally John Darnielle's lyrical content, arguably the bands biggest draw, is as fleshed out and engaging as ever. The "just stay alive"’s of "Amy aka Spent Gladiator" and "Spent Gladiator" are catchy, meaningful and hold the album together because of their placement at each end of the album. This is where the genius of Transcendental Youth lies.
The Mountain Goats have added another fantastic album to their collection, and even after more than twenty years they are still churning out some of the finest work they have to offer. It’s achievement in fluidity and cohesiveness is something only bands with their level of maturity in both age and songwriting are able to find. And though musically nothing of real significance has changed, everything is still as tight as ever. Beyond that, an iterative approach to their sound this time around is arguably just what the band needed to set Transcendental Youth over the top. There is nothing really wrong with the album except that it is not the stuff of an absolute classic. But The Mountain Goats can be forgiven for that, right? I think what we have here is just fine.