Sunday, October 7, 2012

Gut Feeling: The Mountain Goats - Transcendental Youth

A year and a half after the release of the last Mountain Goats album—the magnificent All Eternals Deck—John Darnielle and company are back with a brand new one that is, as you’d expect, pretty great. Granted, I’m biased. I mean, I GUESS you could call it biased, but when it comes to the Mountain Goats my rabid fanship is less of a bias and more of a way of life. In terms of the Mountain Goats discography, there are no bad albums. There are average ones, like Get Lonely and maybe some of the earlier ones which are too disorganized to work as albums (and really, I don’t think they’re trying to work as albums anyway), but most of them range from great (The Life of the World to Come) to really great (Heretic Pride) to heartbreakingly good (We Shall All Be Healed) to the greatest thing I’ve ever heard in my life (All Hail West Texas) and the other greatest thing I’ve ever heard in my life (Tallahassee). I’m probably not the only person who’s thought about writing a screenplay/opera/ballet based on Tallahassee. That’s how we roll, I suppose.

So there’s a new Mountain Goats album, Transcendental Youth, and I have accepted it with open arms. Like every new MTN GTS release before it, this one took me a while to warm up to before I loved it. I don’t know why that is. As if my expectations are being let down a little bit and then song-by-song the whole thing comes together and it’s like YES! And it’s business as usual here. A song-by-song breaking down of my heart. Where Darnielle has been fixated upon survivor stories of late (notably “Never Quite Free” from All Eternals Deck and pretty much the entirety of The Sunset Tree, although there were some people who didn’t make it through on that one) and they are here in spades. Fuck-ups, rejects, failures. The kind of people who, in Darnielle’s words, “people who madly, stupidly, blessedly won’t stop surviving, no matter who gives up on them.” It’s a messy, life-affirming affair. But then again, what Mountain Goats album isn’t?

The opening line is “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive,” for fucks sake. I mean, seriously. And still, Darnielle & crew find ways to diversify. The horn section courtesy of Matthew E. White adds something fantastic and special and emotionally dissonant/triumphant to “Cry For Judas,” “In Memory of Satan” and the title track. It’s a fun new side of the Mountain Goats, but the most special collaboration is the one between Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster who grow tighter as a unit each time around. One of my favorite moments of any show ever was when some drunk ass girl talking way loud at the very front of the stage at a Mountain Goats show at the Jackpot in Lawrence years back almost got hit in the face by Peter Hughes bass and then immediately after that (I think, in my head) was the part on “See America Right” where he goes “Hey!” but in this version of the song he bellowed out “HEYYYYYYYY!” and it was great. Though the Mountain Goats are John Darnielle’s thing—in the sense that his lyrics are what draws people to this project moth/flame style—watching them become a full-fledged band over the last five or so years has been so much fun.

“The Diaz Brothers” is one of my favorite songs on the record, if only because I spent like fifteen minutes trying to figure out the namesake of the titular siblings (UFC fighters? I know how much JD loves fights, or is it just boxing? Singers? Is it a metal thing?) until I realized pretty much every write-up out there noted that the Diaz Brothers were basically the Rosencrantz & Guildenstern of Scarface. And THEN I fell in love with the song that much more. Darnielle always handles his characters with a novelist’s grace. Even when they’re preexisting fictional and non-fictional figures (Authors Sax Rohmer and HP Lovecraft, horror film villain Michael Myers, and movie stars Charles Bronson and Liza Minelli have had their own songs on the past handful of albums), drug addicts hold up in an apartment waiting for “the guy with the angel dust” as in “Lakeside View ApartmentsSuite,” historical figures (like Billy the Kid on the psychotically great All Eternals Deck b-side “CatherineAtrim’s Kid”), and misfits. It’s Darnielle’s tributes to musicians that always kill me. “Song for Dennis Brown” on The Sunset Tree and “September 15 1983” from Heretic Pride (about the death of Prince Far I) are sad and wonderful tributes to fallen reggae legends and here he pays tribute to tragic doo-wop singer Frankie Lymon on the standout “Harlem Roulette.” Lymon’s death by heroin overdose at the age of 25 is prime John Darnielle material. He covered his own addictions on We Shall All Be Healed and come to think of it, “Harlem Roulette,” “Song for DennisBrown,” and “September 15 1983” are all about singers who have died of overdoes. If it haunts his songs, it must haunt him. I guess. Maybe that’s where the joy comes from, because as depressing as any Mountain Goats song gets there’s always a glimmer of hope lurking on the horizon.

Though Darnielle has openly stated that though he is a recent father, this isn’t an album about being a father. It is however an album about staying alive, and with a wife and kid in tow, you can tell that Darnielle is just thankful to be around. “Every dream’s a good dream/ Even awful dreams are good dreams/ If you’re doing it right,” he sings on “Harlem Roulette.” There’s an appreciation of existence at work in his songs that elevates them to a level of transcendence. And sure I’m biased, I’ve been a huge fan of the Mountain Goats since the waning years of high school when I heard Atom and His Package’s cover of “Going to Georgia” and followed that tip down that long, tape-hiss laden rabbit hole and found a singer who made ever little fiber of my soul vibrate with a sort of positivity I’d been lacking. And I just don’t think Darnielle has ever let up. Every album is a treat and they’re kind of beyond being assigned trivial ratings. And naturally, Transcendental Youth rules.

Annnd here's JD performing "Harlem Roulette" for Pitchfork. Absolute perfection. The way he looks like a possessed preacher, yeah, I'mma go ahead and be part of THIS religion.

Here's a heartbreakingly lovely solo-piano version of "In Memory of Satan."

And the spectacular opening track that I barely mentioned, "Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1"

Darnielle performed a number of songs from this record with the classical vocal quartet Anonymous 4 in New York months and months back, and here's what "Counterfeit Florida Plates" looked like. (Hint: If your math looked like "JD + Vocal Quartet = Lovely, kind of awkward but a fun twist on the Mountain Goats"then your math was correct).

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