John Darnielle’s fourteenth album with The Mountain Goats is one of stark contrasts. While it keeps with the dark themes of much of Darnielle’s back catalogue, Transcendental Youth is surprisingly upbeat.
The best example of this is ‘Cry for Judas’. Sung from the viewpoint of a sad and angry teenager who has given up all hope of ever understanding what his limits are. For all intents and purposes this should not be a cheery track, yet it features a startlingly optimistic horn section suggesting there is more to the protagonist than the suggested anger.
Darnielle’s writing is at its most powerful when he’s talking about surviving emotional torment and mental illness. Songs like ‘The Best Ever Death Metal Band In Denton’ and ‘Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod’ worked so well because of Darnielle’s deep understanding of the mind-set of tormented youths, whether this is thanks to his experience as a psychiatric nurse, or his experience of an abusive stepfather, what matters is that this is a subject matter he intimately understands.
It is this which he draws from in Transcendental Youth. In ‘Harlem Roulette’ he talks about Frankie Lymon, who found superstardom aged 13 but couldn’t handle the fame, and struggled with a heroin addiction, while ‘In Memory of Satan’ deals with a young recluse who’s taped over his windows.
Prior to releasing the album, Darnielle had performed it live with accompaniment of the a capella quartet Anonymous Four. It’s interesting to see how versatile the songs are, able to make the transition from classical singing accompaniment to punkish acoustic guitar. It shows how Darnielle has developed over the years from urgent and lo-fi to pensive and well produced.
Transcendental Youth while lacking the power of The Sunset Tree is a strong entry in The Mountain Goats’ discography, featuring great lyrics, which blend the tragic and the comic, and two anthems in ‘Cry for Judas’ and ‘The Diaz Brothers’ that will surely be requested by The Mountain Goats’ faithful at future gigs.