As the Mountain Goats, Durham-based songwriter John Darnielle has amassed nearly 20 albums since the early '90s, a figure that doesn't include an army of EPs, singles and collaborations. During this prolific span, the changes in his music have been significant but arguably superficial. Darnielle went from releasing raw homemade cassettes on niche imprints to releasing polished studio albums on respected labels. It was a deal-breaking moment for old-school Mountain Goats fans who prized the illusion that Darnielle's music was dispatched from a state of dire privation. Those early recordings made it sound like his subjects were telling their own stories after chancing upon cracked guitars in the closets of their mental wards or the attics of their loveless marriages.
While the sound has gotten cleaner, the essential qualities of Darnielle's music have hardly ever wavered. Darnielle continues to draw skid row with empathy and vigor, but that eerie ventriloquism is now muted by artful décor. His scrawny yet strong voice—the vocal equivalent of the pipsqueak who'll fight anyone, any time, and win through sheer pugnacity—still offers vignettes of ingrained despair and lunging redemption, all amid lean folk-rock and, on the new album Transcendental Youth, a fair helping of legato piano balladry. As unlikely to surprise as it is to disappoint, it's another fine Mountain Goats album, mainly distinguished by Matthew E. White's beautiful horn charts.
From the loose concept concerning mental illness to the spare, punchy arrangements, Transcendental Youth checks off every customary Darnielle box. You will haunt bus stops and hospitals, airports and flophouses, rural counties with Native American names. You will pick up literary traces of speculative history, metaphysical poetry and postmodern thought experiments. You will giggle at lyrics that sound like elementary reading primers—"Steal some sunscreen from the CVS/ Use too much and make a great big mess"—and swoon for ones that sound straight out of John Donne, such as the splendidly marching iambs of "Like a star come down to walk the earth in radiant array." You will learn at least one new word, probably the near-Satan synonym "Baphomet." And, perhaps most important, you will hear Darnielle's voice get choked and pitchy with emotion at strategic moments, an indispensable aspect of his vocal style. To invert the usual compliment, he makes it sound hard, a quality that perfectly suits the wounded resilience threaded through these narrative perspectives.
In a recent interview, Darnielle told me he had been working on songs about the apocalypse when these numbers about mental illness started "shoving to the front of the line." But the topics are so compatible that Transcendental Youth could really be about either: Its populace is gripped by a drive for salvation at the very edge of obliteration, a mark too easy to overshoot. It's a salutary record filled with dark corners—that "have designs on me" and "breathe like heavy animals"—where the world disappears, at least for someone.
The apocalypse lingers most heavily over the title track, which quotes the Heaven's Gate cult and distills Darnielle's lament in four brutal lines: "Learn some secrets, never tell/ Stay sick, don't get well." This particular purgatory lies at the fatal juncture of the American dream where what's killing you feels like the only thing keeping you alive, where the individual becomes altar and sacrifice alike.
Addiction, depression, schizophrenia, isolation: The famous and the neglected are torn apart in keenly different, equally disastrous ways during Transcendental Youth. Addicts peek out from cage-like blinds. Paranoids watch for counterfeit plates. Frankie Lymon dies of a heroin overdose at age 25 and "four hours north of Portland, a radio flips on/ and some no one from the future remembers that you're gone." Decades later, Amy Winehouse dies of alcohol poisoning at age 27.
Darnielle turns a song called "Spent Gladiator 1" into a tribute to her and pairs it with "Spent Gladiator 2," in which a battered warrior crawls before an ecstatic audience. This is where the commemoration takes on a critical edge: We are that audience, and our scrutiny, in its absence or intensity, is part of the engine that drives these martyr-like figures into the ground.Label: Merge Records
This article appeared in print with the headline "Big four."