Maybe you’ve heard that Transcendental Youth features horns on a few songs, and maybe you’ve wondered why you should care. After all, it’s been 10 years and eight albums since John Darnielle first signed to 4AD (after a decade of cult-approved home recordings), and started collaborating with other musicians, producers, and engineers in bona fide studios. Still, longtime fans can’t help but hear each musical development as a further tweak away from the spare insistence of those no-fi early records, in the same way that we judge an old college friend’s middle-aged features by their deviation from the face we first met..
And no matter how full and warm the Mountain Goats sound grows, Darnielle himself still embodies the spirit of his earlier work. He’s a presence both effusive and austere, compulsively unburdening himself of stories in an urgent voice that naysayers just cannot be argued out of hating, its stridency unmitigated by folksy mannerism, its certain enunciation and rhythmic deliberateness so characteristic of religious believers and the less docile late-night users of public transit. Both the storyteller and his characters seem incapable of chilling the fuck out.
But on Transcendental Youth, he plays off our vocal expectations. When his voice eases up on the throttle, the lives he describes suddenly lose momentum and purpose. He’s claimed that these songs share a common setting, the gray limbo of rural Washington state, and many of these desperate whispers from existences fading away could indeed have emanated from some drizzly Pacific Northwest of the soul — the dealer of “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” denying your right to judge him as he watches “days like dominos” toppling, or the depressed recluses of “Until I Am Whole” and “In Memory of Satan,” insisting that their wound-licking retreats are just temporary.
Those songs of bleak stasis may explain why Darnielle opens the record with “Amy (AKA Spent Gladiator I),” exhorting us to “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive”; the songs that follow essentially catalog the consequences faced by characters who either take or ignore that advice, attempting to re-energize either in sullen solitude or through experiments in extreme living. It’s a theme that culminates on “Spent Gladiator II” and its astounding string of metaphors for persistence in the face of despair, from “A village on the steppe / About to get collectivized” to a clock still ticking after the firebombing of Dresden.
Darnielle’s repeated cry on both versions of “Spent Gladiator” — “Just stay alive” — might ring corny if bolstered with empty promises that “it gets better.” But though he does allow for glimpses of the transcendence that the album title references, they’re often wispy epiphanies: the visions that possess the psych patient of “White Cedar” who dreams of resurrection, the tenuous life after death enjoyed by the Frankie Lymon of “Harlem Roulette” when “some no one from the future” hears the last single he cut before his 1968 O.D. “Every dream’s a good dream,” Darnielle sings. “Even awful dreams are good dreams.” But the songs imply an unstated corollary: Every dream’s just a dream. Even amazing dreams are just dreams.
The real relief from despair here is musical. This is the Mountain Goats’ fourth record recorded as a trio, with bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster supporting Darnielle’s insistent strum, its headlong intensity signifying determination rather than catharsis or simple good times. The band’s interplay has grown both more varied and intuitive. “The Diaz Brothers” fleshes out the lives of an unseen rival cartel from Scarface to the accompaniment of pounding ’70s-sitcom-theme piano; the sun-dappled rhythms of “Counterfeit Florida Plates” make the compulsive routine of a homeless paranoiac sound less oppressive than lots of day jobs.
Which brings us back to those horns. As arranged by singer-songwriter Matthew E. White, they hint at a fuller world outside the claustrophobic thoughts of a song’s narrator. Darnielle’s lyrics are too honest to consistently convince us that the life he insists we keep on living is worth the struggle. But with his musical palette expanded, he can make life seem, like the cranky hardcore humanists in Flipper used to sing, to be the only thing worth living for…