The Mountain Goats’ latest release, Transcendental Youth comes complete with something new and shiny. No, it’s not the lyrics or subject matter. Rest assured, longtime listeners, John Darnielle is still eloquently mining the depths of the fragile human psyche for some of his best material, dropping lines like “Long black night/Morning frost/I’m still here/But all is lost” with aplomb throughout the album’s twelve tracks. However, this time around, the songs are buoyed by a rousing and sometimes even uplifting horn section, expertly arranged by the emerging and proficient musical jack-of-all-trades Matthew E. White.
Brass sounds weave in and out, adding tinges of hopeful anticipation to stark landscapes (see the above quoted “Cry For Judas”) or simply serving to augment the troubled yet hopeful narratives (as on the haunting album-closing title track). White’s presence as musician/arranger adds nicely to the group’s rhythmic tendencies, which are a bit livelier here than on past releases. Opener “Amy, aka Spent Gladiator” is infectious to the point of sing-along, while “Harlem Roulette” and “Counterfeit Florida Plates” nestle into grooves that demand repeat listens and serve as shields from the harmful actions that potentially doom the fates of the songs’ protagonists.
Darnielle, however, has a knack for drawing the listener back in to the issues at hand, and all is typically not well in his characters’ worlds. They dig their nails into their hands, stare out the windows at vacant streets, and offer up prayers into the far-reaching night skies all in the name of healing or finding a way ahead. Some find salvation, others don’t, but Darnielle, also trained as a psychiatric nurse, knows that people must always keep looking for light. The search for redemption has always been a critical component of The Mountain Goats work, and here Darnielle peppers his songs with little mantras, that come across not as well-worn clichés but instead as meaningful and heartfelt encouragement. “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive” are the words that open the album, and by the end he’s shouting from the hills to “stay in the game/just try to play through the pain”. The goal is to stay alive and see life through, even when life never seems to offer a kind or gentle platform.
Twenty-plus years into an acclaimed musical career, Darnielle remains an acute chronicler of broken souls. But as an artist, he digs deeper, offering a necessary voice of empathy, but also occasional winking snippets of humor. He’d be a great guest of Marc Maron’s WTF podcast where his personality, worldview, and clever humor would be quite the entertainment.