The Mountain Goats: Transcendental Youth

The Mountain Goats
Transcendental Youth
 (Merge Records)

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The Mountain Goats create deeply unsettling, personal music. Listening to an album is delving into a world of sympathy for the socially-tarnished, the shunned, the forced-into-molds that don’t fit. John Darnielle (the lead singer) has long commented on the band’s tendency to empathize and create likable characters from personalities that are deeply problematic. On All Hail West Texas, an early album that was recorded in a garage and gave the bleeding, raw emotion of The Mountain Goats that is present on Transcendental Youth, if you listen closely to “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1,” you can hear the feedback characteristic of lo-fi sound and the acoustic guitar sounds pressing, more real. The album chronicles the abandonment of two high schoolers by their peers, the frustration of being mislabeled as fanatics and satanists instead of music enthusiasts, and not to be too narrow, the shallow and unfulfilling life of the star running back.

Transcendental Youth is no different. From “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” on down the track list, it feels as if Darnielle is sitting in your living room and performing while trying to make you cry.

“But I am just a broken machine/And I do things that I don’t really mean,” Darnielle sings on “Cry for Judas” a song with powerful acoustic guitar, a pumping horn section, and a thumping drum beat that never goes away. The song is the opposite of the sound, about desperation and finding the spot where Judas found himself just before throwing the rope around the branch and hanging himself. The characters involved are desperate, “sad and angry” and heading toward a “long black night.”

Through fourteen studio albums The Mountain Goats are still effectively preaching for the down-trodden by chronicling rejection and uncomfortable living. “Lakeside View Apartments” and “White Cedar” are driven by Darnielle’s powerful vocals, with simple piano arrangement; they are two of the more optimistic on the album. “You can’t tell me what my spirit tells me isn’t true,” he sings to the growing orchestral sound.

Transcendental Youth is filled with sweeping orchestration, sparse but shocking drumming, and the somber vocals of Darnielle. There is a glimmer of hope in all the desperation, and the disquieting specificity of the album makes appreciation of the listener’s situation that much grander.

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