Mountain Goats climb to new heights on new album
Transcendental Youth is no sonic revolution for the Mountain Goats. But then, who was really looking for one? After 20 years of being led by vocalist, lyricist, guitarist, and keyboardist John Darnielle, the Mountain Goats have established a predictable but strongly effective sound.
Every song in the new album sounds familiar without sounding rehashed, much like an old friend’s new escapades showing up on your Facebook feed. But sonic atmosphere is not the soul of the Mountain Goats’ music; it is the lyrics that truly define the band’s musical accomplishments. The Mountain Goats’ musical output is much like the bibliography of a well-established, prodigious author: linguistic magic delivered in crisp packaging.
While Transcendental Youth won’t sway any of the band’s detractors, it is an excellent listen for both veteran fans and for those who have never heard of the band. Continuing in the trend of more recent Mountain Goats albums, Darnielle is supported by bassist Peter Hughes and drummer John Wurster (better known for his work with Superchunk). The band creates sounds that complement Darnielle’s lyrics perfectly, whether it is the almost low-fidelity crunch that recalls the more visceral work of early Mountain Goats on “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1,” or the propulsive upbeat bassline and horn lines of the album’s first single “Cry for Judas,” which belies the hopelessness of the lyrics.
But the instrumentation’s function is really just as a complement to the voice. In this case, that’s totally fine, because if you’re listening to an album made by the Mountain Goats, you’re listening in order to hear Darnielle’s singing.
And, boy, does Darnielle deliver. The singing is drenched in urgency, toeing the line between control and chaos that Darnielle has perfected. Without even taking the lyrics into consideration, Transcendental Youth is enjoyable to listen to, filled with both upbeat anthems seemingly crafted for long road trips and introspective, emotionally devastating monologues.
What makes this album so beautifully devastating, however, is the songwriting. Darnielle is an incredibly gifted lyricist who is capable of both vivid imagery (“When the men emerge with rifles from the haystack / Everybody looks surprised / Like the mice in the forgotten grain / Way up on the top shelf” on “Spent Gladiator 2”) and smart poetic wordplay (“Dream of maybe waking up someday / And wanting you less than I do / This is a dream though / It’s never gonna come true” on “Night Light”).
The album is loosely themed on self-destruction and the constant struggle for salvation and hope. While an album from a more self-conscious band may have been overly trite, the pure ferocity with which the band delivers its sound makes empathizing with the characters in Transcendental Youth a near inevitability. It is the band’s ability to provoke empathy that allows the Mountain Goats to continue creating such brilliance release after release. For listeners who have become jaded by a music industry consumed with irony and self-awareness, Transcendental Youth is a welcome beacon of raw, controlled power.