If there’s one word to describe The Mountain Goats, it’s prolific. Singer-songwriter John Darnielle, the one-man tour de force behind the Mountain Goats moniker, has released over 67 albums, singles, EPs, anthologies and collaborations over the last twenty years. Whereas most bands break up after a few tours, the Mountain Goats keep pushing on. They are the rare group who not only release music consistently, but consistently release good music. Although some purists insist the transition to hi-fi on 2002’s Tallahassee ruined the band, Darnielle’s singing and songwriting has remarkably broadened and diversified from his early days recording songs on a boombox. Transcendental Youth, the band’s thirteenth full-length album since 2000, stands out as one of the freshest Mountain Goats album in years.
Each of the twelve tracks follows a different protagonist to offer a glimpse into the struggle on the fringes of society in Washington state. Darnielle himself stated that the album would focus on “outcasts, recluses, the mentally ill and others struggling in ordinary society.” Darnielle makes each vignette come alive by coupling vivid imagery with effective acoustic, piano and horn arrangements. The second track, “Lakeside View,” takes us to a drug haven where days are “like dominoes, all in a line.” On the more upbeat “Cry for Judas,” he follows a rebel who comes to realize there’s “no one to catch us when we fall.” The well-timed horns in “Judas”—really throughout the whole album—give the story an emotional jolt. Frenetic acoustic number “Harlem Roulette” has a chance to become a live show staple. It’s an imagined monologue given by forgotten 1950s sensation Frankie Lymon where he solemnly declares the “loneliest people in the whole world are the ones you’re never going to see again.” With each song, the album’s desperation builds, reaching a climax on “White Cedar,” one of the most beautiful and poignant tracks you’ll hear this year. The abundance of underdog stories recalls great classics such as “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton,” a cult favorite, and many of TY’s songs could achieve similar stature in a few years. Although Darnielle writes lyrics in the way he always has, these ones convey nuanced tragic characters, and each description is both intimate and humane.
But what really separates this album from others in the Mountain Goats discography is the added instrumentation. Matthew E. White was brought in to arrange the horn sections, and this was a brilliant move. The full horn sections freshen the guitar/drums/bass trio that has become standard Mountain Goats fare. “Cry for Judas” even relies on the orchestra for much of its melody—a musical decision which no one would’ve expected, but it works. The guitar playing isn’t much more complex than it was 10 years ago, but it’s purposeful and allows John’s voice to shine through. It’s an album that requires headphones to reveal the nuances of the production.
On previous efforts, the lyrics were what gave the records staying power. Whereas previous albums have stripped down the music so much as to leave John’s voice bare, on Transcendental Youth, there’s a productive symbiosis between the lyrics and the instrumentation. It’s no All Hail West Texas or The Sunset Tree, but Transcendental Youth is the work of a band that’s as lively as ever.