Sunday, November 18, 2012
The Mountain Goats: Transcendental Youth (2012)
It's not altogether surprising that some are finding this new Mountain Goats album to be John Darnielle's most connected, startling work in years while others are blasé and underwhelmed. What are the lessons of Darnielle's career, after all, if not that even a cult artist can reach his disciples for a myriad variety of reasons. At its best, for me Transcendental Youth is a flamboyantly emotive record, an ironic but felt celebration of the desperation it carefully documents by long-suffering outcasts and lost causes. Bugger the notion that his work relies wholly on his alternately literate, revealing, and wide-eyed lyrics -- if you didn't already get the message from All Eternals Deck that this has become a real and full-fledged band, you will now.
What does make the difference between a good and great Mountain Goats album is the strength of the vocals, which invariably say a good deal about Darnielle's engagement with the subject matter (spoiler: he's consistently very attached and compassionate toward the people and actions he sings about). Still, if you're not on board with a song about offscreen Scarface characters ("The Diaz Brothers"), distantly poetic though it may be, nothing's likely to wake you up to fully appreciate it, not even that high-octane piano playing.
It's all still music, first and foremost, to me, and musically I don't find this sunnier treatment of unsavory-as-ever matters to be more engaging than the variably brooding and impassioned Eternals, which I still believe was one of the best collections of songs Darnielle has put together, and without the safety net of a unified theme. If there's a theme here, granted, it's a vague one, but it takes very little searching to find the common chords between a tune inspired by the death of Amy Winehouse ("do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive") against insistently anthemic drums and guitar, and one about Frankie Lymon's pounding drive into permanent oblivion. The Winehouse song is destined to join the pantheon of shouted-with-gusto concert staples; the Lymon one boasts Darnielle's most durable hook possibly ever. And in no sense does lyric writing get much better in anyone's canon than "the loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you're never going to see again," though I doubt one can convey the impact of that line in writing.
The table was set for this LP's adventures in pop writing and unexpectedly intricate arrangements way back on 2009's The Life of the World to Come, which at the time was hailed as something new and elaborate musically and conceptually. Everything Darnielle has issued since then, including the two Goats albums and his collaboration with Franklin Bruno as the Extra Lens, has come across as a sort of loosening of that record's tight conceptual reins, in service of ever more agreeably sung and expressed missives from the same diverse characters and forbidden-thought pits as ever. It's for this reason that I feel my ideal Mountain Goats are those of 2011, a loosening but also a furious but never hard focus upon eclecticism. Darnielle's a new father now, and we now have new horns, new brightness, a new elasticity to match.
So a good number of the songs here whoosh by -- undeniably pleasurable and with a not infrequent effect of rendering one agape at the three-piece's virtuosity -- despite better melodies than ever, more affected, nightmarishly detailed production that occasionally puts the spotlight on Darnielle's metal fascination ("Until I Am Whole") as well as a long-untapped love of melodrama, but it's a short walk from spare, haunted chiming there to the self-consciously drab "Night Light." The songs in this problematic midsection will undoubtedly mean the world to some; I've little doubt that "Counterfeit Florida Plates" is the best song about schizophrenia and stealing sunscreen from CVS that's ever been written, or that the "perfect howl of emptiness" on "In Memory of Satan" will strike someone as being just for them. It's all quite intensely hunkered-down and hard-hitting, but not really up my alley. Nothing here, frankly, gets to me like "Age of Kings" or "High Hawk Season" or "Estate Sale Sign." What I'm getting at is: the playfulness in Darnielle's voice seems to be driven to a sense of obligation here rather than the exploratory or heart-wrenched rumblings on his best work. But I'm probably just deaf to things I want to hear but can't.
Don't take complaints about this undeniably slick, verbose mood music to be a referendum on the horns, Darnielle's big new discovery here courtesy arranger Matthew White, which liven up what could be a bleak affair. They enter first on the staggering "Cry for Judas" ("I am just a broken machine and I do things that I don't really mean"), tempering its hopelessness; and peak on the closing title track, one of the most ingratiating pop pieces this man's ever performed. It's big band splendor and could almost be a Lovin' Spoonful song -- a musical break from the often harrowing mental-health breakdowns chronicled elsewhere here. But mental health breakdowns are a big reason we're all here. There's none better than on the best cut on Youth, the one on which all of Darnielle's conflicted impulses hang together flawlessly -- "Lakeside View Apartments Suite" finds us in another screened-in, bleak drug hovel; the cloudy, volatile, intense atmosphere is notable for its keenly observed sense of place and the nearly unbearable heartbreak lurking behind it. If those troubling internal casualties and impulses are something that connect to you, you probably need to hear this album in full. If you're sort of tormented by it in a manner that you weren't even by "No Children," go ahead and listen, but keep the lights on and your loved ones near, for heaven's sake.
The Life of the World to Come (2009)
All Eternals Deck (2011)
All Survivors Pack (2011)