“Was it Wordsworth who said, ‘Poetry is emotion recollected in tranquility’?” John Darnielle asks me as I sit across from him in an empty hotel room. I have no idea if Wordsworth said that, and even if I did know, I probably wouldn’t say anything because when Darnielle speaks he tends to rattle off quotes, allusions and rhetorical questions with a professorial focus that leaves little room for correction. Darnielle pauses. He mumbles to himself. “I think that’s right. Well, for me I don’t know about the tranquility aspect of it, but anything I’m addressing I’m dredging up.”
For over 20 years Darnielle has been dredging up startlingly specific stories as the Mountain Goats, transforming the harrowing trauma and pain of his characters into a communal catharsis shared by his band’s passionate fans, but right now, on a warm summer day, he’s a portrait of tranquility. His button-down shirt is tucked into his jeans, his glasses perched carefully on his nose, obscuring small, careful eyes. He gladly tells me about the new European metal bands he’s been listening to lately—In Solitude (“cult ‘70s metal vibe”) and Jess And The Ancient Ones (“a little Jefferson-Starship-in-a-goth-band kind of feeling to it”)—and he indulges my questions about his interest in Satanism (“Am I continuing that Jesus Christ was a Satanist?” he jokes. “Yes, I am.”).
He speaks with the clear diction of an intense public radio host, using a friendly yet concerned tone perhaps developed during his years working as a psychiatric nurse at a mental health hospital. In his songs he’s been known to take on a nasal wail that can be alarming to newcomers or serve as a siren call to the faithful, but it’s a tenor he explores less and less on record. Ever since chasing many of his personal demons out on 2005’s The Sunset Tree, Darnielle’s music has grown more somber, more contemplative. He wrote more on piano. He recorded an album based around specific Bible verses. He signed to Merge Records, based out of Durham, North Carolina, where he now lives with his wife. Darnielle appears to be assembling the trappings of mature adult life: wife, home, career stability. Yet on his newest album he returns to the theme that’s always been the bedrock upon which the church of the Mountain Goats was built years ago: youth.
The album went through some alternate titles (Satanic Youth, Infernal Youth) before settling into Transcendental Youth. “Youth is sort of a birthright,” Darnielle says. “Transcendence is like a magic trick. It’s becoming OK with something you actually can’t help. That’s how you transcend. It’s to actually stay put.”
Darnielle has become really good at staying put. Besides touring, he’s a very domestic creature. Those early songs, with evocative and referential titles like “Orange Ball Of Love” and “The Last Day Of Jimi Hendrix’s Life,” were written in the throes of youth. But now at the age of 45, Darnielle is 18 years older than Jimi Hendrix was when he died and almost as old as Don DeLillo was when he wrote White Noise, the novel from which Darnielle’s “Orange Ball” song series draws its cheeky inspiration. And he’s recently crossed another significant life threshold: The guy whose most famous song is called “No Children” has a child, a son named Roman.
And yet he remains as focused as ever on gloom-soaked, occasionally sinister material that favors lines about black drapes over crosses instead of couplets about bassinets and bonnets. He describes the album’s relationship to parenthood as strictly “antagonistic,” explaining that while he’s enjoying fatherhood, he still has a reflexive punk disdain for songwriters who suddenly discover a sunny sense of optimism after a couple of weeks of changing diapers. “I don’t see myself addressing the parenthood album,” he says. “That is not my speed.”
Darnielle knows that a certain degree of thematic consistency is part of the Mountain Goats’ enduring appeal: Just as Slayer will never release an album called Reign In Sunshine, the Mountain Goats will never record an LP titled The Happily Married Father’s Gambit. “That’s not what I do, and it’s not what people want,” he explains. “I hope it’s not one-dimensional. I hope it’s rich enough to yield various views, but the thing I do has to do with darkness.”
How does one go about facing the darkness every year? How do you keep it from overtaking you, from swallowing you whole? For a Romantic poet like Wordsworth, it was about seeking a reconciliation between nature and man, while for Darnielle it’s based in finding a balance between routine and disruption. The work for Transcendental Youth began last June in a Minneapolis hotel room where Darnielle wrote the song “Until I Am Whole” in the middle of a tour. On record the song retains its stark sense of isolation, but, as songs written by the modern iteration of the Mountain Goats often are, it’s buttressed by the contributions of longtime bassist Peter Hughes and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster.
That’s the thing about most recent Mountain Goats albums that many critics and casual fans have failed to notice: At some point in the last five years, the Mountain Goats became a real band. Long just a lyrics-first dude-with-a-guitar-and-some-deep-thoughts singer-songwriter, the Mountain Goats are still intrinsically connected to Darnielle’s worldview, but the records are less claustrophobic. He’s excited to play me a demo he recorded with Wurster at his house in North Carolina, and he talks about hoping to emulate a series of stripped-down acoustic shows the Minutemen did in the ’80s.
“Most people settle into a rhythm and every album sounds the same,” he says. “For me every album sounded the same for about five or six records. Now I’m a lot more curious than I used to be about sound. I used to be more strictly focused on the content, and it didn’t really matter how you present it.”
Is it possible that the guy who The New Yorker once called “America’s best non hip-hop lyricist” is turning his back on the literary style that made him such a beloved songwriter? No. Not at all. The new album is still filled with the type of characters who’ve always inhabited the dark hallways of the Mountain Goats’ Home For Wayward Youth. “Everyone on the record is mentally ill to some extent, so really they’re not just in crisis but sick, suffering in some way and finding a way to be OK with that,” he says. They’re fighters, gladiators and survivors.
At one point in our conversation, Darnielle starts talking about his favorite sport: boxing. He recently watched the bout between Sergio Martinez and Paul Williams, and he recalls how after the fight the announcer immediately shoved a microphone in the winner’s face, asking, “What are you feeling at this moment?”
“That’s not even an interesting question!” says Darnielle. “First impressions are pretty heavily overrated. A first impression is of necessity rushed and without nuance. I’m much more interested in things that have had time to stew.” So what would his ideal post-boxing interview be like? “No commentary. You just watch people fight.”
This article originally appeared in the CMJ 2012 festival guide.