Transcendence doesn’t come easy for the characters in John Darnielle’s songs. For over 20 years the songwriter has put together a murderer’s row of outcasts, speed-freaks, thieves, tortured musicians, washed-up actors, alcoholic stepfathers, paranoid science-fiction writers, Satan-worshippers, peanut-lovers and actual murderers. They’re often manic, depressive, manic-depressive or just plain desperate, and though Darnielle often catches them in their quieter, more reflective moments, they’re not the type of people one might associate with a spiritually gooey and Emersonian word like “transcendence.” When I think of “transcendence” I think of mystics arriving at a higher state of being through meditation or hikers chewing granola while standing before a giant waterfall. I don’t think of the Mountain Goats.
The most basic and practical form of transcendence is about a type of stillness, but most of the drifters gathered together on the latest Mountain Goats record, Transcendental Youth, are looking for an escape, whether it’s through isolation, a getaway car or a trapdoor. They’re frantic; they’re worried; they’re in need, many of them marked by abuse and all suffering from some type of mental illness. And yet, through these songs, they find little pockets of peace. Sometimes these moments are reflected in the types of tiny writerly details that Darnielle has made a career out of mining and cultivating into clever, poignant couplets (“Steal some sunscreen from the CVS/Use too much and make a great big mess” is one of many gems), but more and more the sense of buoyancy comes from the songs themselves: the arrangements, the instrumentation and the sense of community that emerges from a great band that obviously enjoys playing together.
After the stark, somber brood-rock of 2011’s All Eternal’s Deck and the hushed, contemplative compositions of 2009’s Life Of The World To Come, it’s refreshing to hear a little lilt and some playfulness return to the group. The opener, “Amy Aka Spent Gladiator 1,” is one of the punchiest and most transparently resilient songs that Darnielle has written in the last decade, a propulsive potential anthem that both paints a portrait of severe social alienation (“Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make”) and offers a ray of hope to those in need (“Just stay alive”). Throughout the record Darnielle remains focused on the idea of surviving in the midst of chaos and terror, a feeling most succinctly summarized on the song “Cry For Judas” when he lets lose a primal cry: “I am still here but all is lost.”
The need to affirm one’s own existence, to put a stake into the ground and mark a territory despite the world’s crushing indifference, informs almost every song on the album, providing a thematic link between startlingly specific sketches (“The Diaz Brothers”), the vivid historical tragedies (“Harlem Roulette”) and the panoramic, Robert Altman-style chamber dramas (“Lakeside View Apartment Suite”). As is often the case, Darnielle jumps wildly between locations and time periods, giving a jazz studio in Harlem the same sense of lived-in, journalistic detail that he reserves for the tweaked-out addicts crawling their way through the highways of Florida. What brings these characters together is an urge to leave a mark on the universe by documenting their dreams and desires, whether they’re writing songs, scribbling on bathroom walls or just leaving scratches in the floor. “And just before I leave I throw up in the sink/One whole life recorded in disappearing ink,” Darnielle sings toward the end of one track, articulating the physical, vomit-like desire to create but also acknowledging the futility of it all.
Before the release of the album, Darnielle was calling Transcendental Youth the “Satan record”, and though Lucifer makes a cameo appearance (the moving and downright tender “In Memory Of Satan”), this will probably be categorized under a different tag: the horn record. Collaborating with composer and singer-songwriter Matthew E. White, the band accents many of these songs with joyful, warm horn arrangements that provide subtle coloring and shading to these often dark, murmured narratives. At times the horns give the songs a haunting, epic grandeur (“White Cedar”), while some tracks suggest an almost jazzy, improvisatory slant (the swinging title track).
Some may find White’s contributions cumbersome or unnecessary—we’re not in tape-hiss, boombox-recorded Kansas anymore—but here’s the thing about Mountain Goats records: Like a subway or a taxi cab, if you miss one, you don’t have to wait too long for another. Darnielle’s prolific nature, and his unwillingness to bow to trends or make big, ambitious records, makes him an easy songwriter to take for granted. Many people feel like they “get” the Mountain Goats, and they don’t have to check in every couple of years to find out what’s new, but that’s a shame because Darnielle, longtime bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster are up to something special here. They may not be particularly youthful anymore, but there’s plenty of transcendence to be found on this record.