John Darnielle’s a poet, right? Right. He’s spent 14 albums displaying a way with words that only comes when a baffling innate talent is hungrily fed with intellect and empirical truth.
So his 14th album, Transcendental Youth is a bunch of poems set to music then, right? Nah. It’s not that simple in the world of the Mountain Goat. Accompanied by the greatest drummer in the world Jon Wurster (Superchunk) and longtime collaborator Peter Hughes on bass and backing vocals Darnielle has torn himself away from his maddeningly brilliant Twitter account and newborn child to create a pummeling, powerful album of personal politic and protest.
At the Barbican earlier this year Darnielle played many of these songs (perhaps all) alongside American vocal legends Anonymous 4 and the ever-versatile Owen Pallett to tremendous effect. There’d be understandable fears that this wouldn’t transfer quite so elegantly to a record on which neither of those elements were present. The case is the opposite – those unusual performances have broadened Darnielle’s musical approach and even if the instrumentation can be accused of being a delivery method for the message, this is nowhere near being a bland offering in terms of musicality.
The man who wrote the gloriously bleak ‘No Children’ doesn’t shirk the darkness here, particularly on the Raymond Carver-like low-life tragedy of ‘Lakeside View Apartment Suite’. “Days like dominoes in a line/We cheer for the home team every time” may not have inherent weight but it’s the heft of Darnielle’s delivery and his band’s sparse power that give it impact. It’s the song he closed his Barbican shows with and while it worked beautifully as a man and piano kiss-off the “Lakeside View…for my whole crew” refrain takes on a warped Springsteen quality when delivered here. A tale of lives and drug deals gone wrong, Darnielle illuminates the corners of his purposely limited dynamics here to overwhelming effect.
Thematically the album recalls their 2004 release ‘We Shall All Be Healed’ , centering as it does on the struggles of another group of friends – this time in Washington State rather than Portland and more importantly this time imbued with a sense of hope rather than utter despair – the first clear statement we get from the Claremont native is “Stay alive/Just stay alive”, followed by his nasal twang requesting that we “not hurt anybody on your way up to the light”. It’s instantly enthralling – it’s the kind of moist-eyed heroism they specialize in.
The horns of ‘Cry For Judas’ and the title track broaden things out with grace, giving Mr Darnielle a more spacious palette on which to paint his pictures. This approach is particularly well realized on the latter tune, a shuffling moonlit reminiscence that fills the mind with imagery as swiftly as it swells the heart with dreaming. It’s also momentarily hilarious, Darnielle using the famous Cramps album title as a lyric – “Stay sick” he orders, before following the thought to it’s logical conclusion – “Do not get well.’
While ‘Night Light’ is less than compelling it does at least boast the sly lines “Pull my mask so tight / It starts to pinch my skin / Nerves strung so high / I am a mandolin”, and ‘White Cedar’ may lack lyrical impact but, again, boasts a killer drum-tease from Wurster and winds up being something of an orchestral voyage. The old days of Darnielle recording alone into the perforated face of a boom box are long gone as the lush strings stroke the speakers here.
The ever-so-slight ‘Until I Am Whole’ slyly offers you an FM ballad of sorts, but of course the chalice is poisoned: “Dig my nails into my hands / Hope it leaves a mark”, while ‘The Diaz Brothers’ offers a Billy Joel piano vamp, a cracking ‘50s chorus and, in it’s own angled way, a genuine, alternate universe pop hit.
The finest moment here though is perhaps the dense New York love Letter ‘Harlem Roulette’ (apt considering there are moments of Paul Simon-esque wonder scattered throughout this release) where a stab of acoustic guitar drives us to the triumphal heart-stomp of the line “The loneliest people in the whole wide world/Are the ones you’re never going to see again” and the gracious tell of “Nothing like a New York summer night/Every dream’s a good dream/Even awful dreams are good dreams/If you’re doing it right”.
This is a record populated by failing people, falling people, flawed lovers, drunk and drugged and done for, counted-out, heartsick and tired to their core strugglers and stragglers. Yet Darnielle empowers them. There’s always a glimpse of the future, even in the furthest recesses of the horrors of the past. The Mountain Goats of ‘Transcendental Youth’ are wide open with possibility – you’ve a feeling they can do as they please from this point of liberation and, in all probability whatever they do next will, yes, be poetical, but it will also undoubtedly be massively musically satisfying.