It’s only fair to tell you right from the start that I consider the Mountain Goats my favorite band. Often my claiming this results in bewildered, blank stares that signal obliviousness. Sometimes, it draws strange, tilt-headed stares from music aficionados. But every once in while, it results in a wide grin and I get to share a moment with another human being that treasures the musical and literary achievement of what I regard as one of the greatest songwriters of our time.
It’s almost too difficult to count the exact number of albums the Mountain Goats have produced between so many compilations, home recordings, cassette releases, splits, and rarities, not to mention the library of studio albums. If you trust Wikipedia, Transcendental Youth marks number 14, the band’s second for Merge Records, and represents the culmination of years of honing in a craft of songwriting.
The progressions have always been clean and simple, even when the songs were rough and unpolished. However, Darnielle possesses the ability to put together a bridge as well as any musician today, and his hooks last for days. These properties remain regardless of how the records shift. On Get Lonely Darnielle experimented with quiet, fragile falsetto; on Heretic Pride it was thundering, brash acoustic pop; The Life of the World to Come brought piano ballads and Biblical allusions. His last record All Eternals Deck began to combine all of these elements with Darnielle’s more salient songwriting talents. It was outstanding. Transcendental Youth tops it.
Darnielle sounds more confident than ever. The album’s production continues the polished trend that began with Tallahassee, strengthened with We Shall All Be Healed, and solidified with The Sunset Tree. A brass section marks the largest addition musically to Darnielle’s approach, but he doesn’t abuse it. Transcendental Youth, like albums before it, proves to be deeply conceptual—an album about all those dark, beautiful, horrifying, and memorable moments shared by those living on the boundary of society. Darnielle expertly paints visceral images impossible to shake, using only minimal snippets of lines built on quick melodic rhymes and turns of phrase.
Picking essential songs for an album like this proves impossible for me. As soon as I’ve pinned something down, I fall in love with the track after it… and then the next one. The short, stuttering acoustics of opener “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” burst from the speakers as Darnielle belts out an anthem for the social outcast: “People might laugh at your tattoos/ When they do get new ones in completely garish hues/ I hide down in my corner, because I like my corner/ I am happy where the vermin play!” He follows with “Lakeside View Apartments Suite,” a quiet piano-driven song harboring dark, powerful imagery and buoyed by steady snare. Darnielle almost edges into falsetto a few times, but balances this better than on previous records, coming across more assertive. Track three presents the single, “Cry for Judas,” which surprisingly offers subtle mixing pans noticeable in headphones. Upbeat and rocking, the song utilizes brass heavily and possesses a descending chorus line—as catchy as ever.
This opening triumvirate of a power-punch echoes everything that follows. For a long time, I’ve tried to understand that some folks just can’t get behind the quirky pop of the Mountain Goats or Darnielle’s nasally (though often incredibly accurate) vocals, but records like Transcendental Youth obliterate any excuses. The Mountain Goats are one of independent music’s most important contributors, Darnielle one of its most vital songwriters.