If freedom was just about having “nothing left to lose” for Kris Kristofferson, then for the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle freedom is more like having nothing left to tear to the ground. The characters in Darnielle’s songs have long been the architects of their own destructive freedoms for better or (often) worse. As the poet laureate of the down and out, Darnielle has constructed countless narratives of the rock-bottom, often mixing zeal and depravity in equal measures, crafting hope out of hopeless situations, looking at the cinders of lives lived through scorched-earth policies as the embers of a new beginning.
Since he’s done this for so long (and so damn well), you might be inclined to dismiss Transcendental Youth as another spin in that established viscious cycle. But what makes Darnielle such a powerful songwriter and performer is that he’s constantly shining light into new corners of these haunted houses, finding traps doors to new parts as yet unexplored. Transcendental Youth is not, then, a rehash so much as it is a continuation, particularly of the past few albums in which the Mountain Goats have become a power trio including bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster. Following the raw-nerved outliers of 2008’s Heretic Pride, the Bible-as-field-survival-guide in 2009’s The Life of the World to Come, and the impassioned chorus of the desperate on last year’s All Eternals Deck — all finding people clawing toward the bottom if only to stop moving — Transcendental Youth seems to be, finally, post crisis.
These characters are still revelling in mistakes — “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive,” Danielle insists to open “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” — but it’s the feeling alive that’s more important to note. These people may “play with matches” or, on “The Diaz Brothers,” stay “one step ahead of enemies,” but the trajectory here seems to be towards the light rather than away from it. Even when things seem at their most bleak on the drug-den ode of “Lakeside View Apartment Suite,” there’s still an assertion of place and community, of solidarity. It’s “Lakeside View for my whole crew,” Darnielle claims, even as their lives are fleeting, written “in disappearing ink.”
Darnielle, now a new father, has made much about how he refuses to turn into a soft, bright songwriter now that he has a child, and he certainly hasn’t. The excellent yet heartbreaking “Harlem Roulette”, which tells the story of “Why Do Fools Fall in Love” singer Frankie Lymon, is the biggest (and darkest) cautionary tale of the bunch. Lymon was in the fledgling days of a comeback when he overdosed on heroin, his glimmer of hope snuffed out by unexercised demons. But, where this might be the typical vibe of a Mountain Goats record, here it’s an exception. With the warm horns on “Cry for Judas” or the title track — provided by 2012 indie-rock arrangement MVP Matthew White — this is overall the brightest sounding Goats record since The Sunset Tree.
With the most consistent use of Jon Wurster to propel these songs forward behind those horns and Darnielle’s tight melodies, Transcendental Youth has an impressive inertia to it, another signpost that these people are climbing up the stairs instead of rooting around in the cellar. Even on the tense build-up of outlaw tune “Night Light,” things never break and fall apart. “Counterfeit Florida Plates,” with the anticipation of betrayal about to come, there’s still a sunburst feel to Hughes’ spacious bass line, the cascading guitars, Wurster’s rim taps. “The Diaz Brothers” is the catchiest tune here — and the best pure pop song Darneille has cranked out since “Dance Music” — with sweet piano rundowns bolstering the assurance that what’s coming isn’t ruin but, rather, “mercy for the Diaz Brothers.”
For a guy as prolific as John Darnielle, it’s still amazing just how consistent he has become, and Transcendental Youth is another set of tunes without a dud in the bunch. The underwater effects in the background of fishing tune “Until I Am Whole” may be a bit on the nose, and the slow piano of “White Cedar” may slow things a bit in the middle of the record, but overall this is a record without any true missteps. As the characters take those nascent steps towards something better, Darnielle crafts an intricate but sweet path for them, digging into unique details like stolen sunscreen or mice in the pantry to craft evocative and bittersweet stories. His use of metaphor — like on “Night Light” with its “nerves strung so high, I am a mandolin” — are subtle yet pinpoint. In short, this is another hyper-energized, beautifully crafted album by the Mountain Goats, so as the songs keep coming from Darnielle, and his characters are starting to rise and emerge from the dark, he show no signs of bottoming out as a songwriter anytime soon, for the well he returns to is deep and the water keeps changing.