When The Mountain Goats released All Eternals Deck last year, I made the claim to my friends that John Darnielle was one of the best—if not the best—living, English-speaking lyricist. After listening to the band’s most recent effort, Transcendental Youth, I am entirely convinced that this is true. The album’s been out for a month now, but after innumerable listens, the beauty of the thing has not even begun to fade. The album is a powerful examination of life in its most desperate forms: song subjects include drug addiction, failed relationships, paranoia, mental illness, and the lives of alienated celebrities like Amy Winehouse and Frankie Lymon to outcasts like Judas Iscariot and Scarface’s ill-fated and hardly-mentioned coke dealers, the “Diaz Brothers”. It’s a defense of sadness, struggle, and, ultimately, life itself.
The instrumentation serves this theme well. Slow, soft, minor key piano work (“Lakeside View Apartments Suite”), some well-placed horn melodies (“Cry For Judas” and “White Cedar” are best), and even some atmospheric electric guitar (“Night Light”)—all serve to embellish the Mountain Goats’ trademark “bi-fi” acoustic guitar. But it’s not just the subject matter and the melodies that make Transcendental Youth so fantastic. As in any Mountain Goats album, the defining feature is the lyrical genius of the band’s front-man John Darnielle. Imagine Hemingway’s Iceberg theory and Elliot’s Objective Correlative twisted into one songwriting philosophy—that’s Darnielle.
Transcendental Youth uses sparse, emotionally-charged images to paint a story in glimpses. “The Diaz Brothers”—a driving ode to a pair of stock characters in Scarface that do nothing in the film but show up onscreen briefly and dead—is an obvious example, but there are countless others. In “Night Light,” for instance, a character named “Jenny calls from Montana/ she’s only passing through.” There’s no direct indication of who Jenny is or why she’s calling. The listener is left to guess, to put the line within the intellectual and emotional context of the song. And that’s the point: one can never know entirely. Each song is another person’s story, as best as one can know it, which is incompletely. “Harlem Roulette,” a tribute to musician Frankie Lymon, muses that man’s legacy is to “leave a little mark on something maybe” so that “some no one from the future remembers that you’re gone.” “Lakeside View Apartments Suite,” one of the strongest and most haunting cuts from the album, paints the story of a drug-addict as “one life recorded in disappearing ink.” These songs are stories of lives pieced together from glimpses, never complete, necessarily limited, but worth knowing anyway, because the stories speak to something deeper, something common in the “human experience,” whatever exactly that is.
It’s not all darkness and sadness; in any bleak situation, there is always hope, if only a glimmer of it. After all, Darnielle muses, “even awful dreams are good dreams/ if you doing it right.” Tracks like “White Cedar” (“I will be made a bright new creature one bright day”) and “Until I Am Whole” suggest that even in its suffering and obscurity, life is worth something. What? The album itself doesn’t offer a perfect answer, but it certainly makes one think, which is a good a thing as any for an album to do.
-Nick Check, “The Nick and Austin Show” Sundays 8:30pm-9:30pm