In what now seems like the perfect circumstance, I was introduced to the music of The Mountain Goats many years ago by the father of a high school girlfriend. I say perfect not only because this man happened to have impeccable musical taste that shamed my comparatively idiotic 14 year old self, but because I imagine The Mountain Goats would be a hard band (or artist, considering the year and John Darnielle’s relative loneliness) to come to on your own. With an idiosyncratic style built up over many years and albums that compete in complexity only with their own mythology, not to mention the possible dealbreaker that is Darnielle’s high register, highly emotive voice, they’re also a hard band to convert people to. You would need a certain level of confidence – either self sustained or in my case buoyed by the fervor of a convert – to wring through all the “Alphas” and “Going To’s”. But, as Transcendental Youth – this year’s installment of the constantly refreshed Mountain Goats discography – reminds me: it’s incredibly worth it.
Luckily for anyone dipping into TMG’s for the first time, Transcendental Youth is perhaps the most plainly enjoyable record since 2005′s The Sunset Tree, and as such a comparatively easier in-road than the recent All Eternals Deck or Heretic Pride. But don’t worry all you Darnielle devotees, there’s plenty here for you too. While there might not be obvious continuations of earlier stories, the bookending tracks “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1″ and “Spent Gladiator 2″ create a pocket narrative for the album, as well as spawn a wonderfully apt slogans for the later years Darnielle output : “Do every stupid thing to stay alive. Just stay alive.” While most directly the phrase refers to the style of reckless living that Darnielle has made a career out of reporting on – derelict houses full of addicts, car floor mats smoldering with live embers, a relationship falling apart in an overgrown backyard littered with empty bottles, etc – but also to Darnielle’s relentless preservation of The Mountain Goats themselves, even through increased fame, additional band members, and the beginning of his own family (an experience he should be bizarrely practiced at considering the intimacy of his fan base). “Stupid” doesn’t always mean bad or unsuccessful, and I’m sure John Darnielle has weathered that insult enough in his career. It’s persistence is it’s own rewarding fuck-you.
The album also sounds good, burnishing out its sound with horns in a move that – for whatever reason – reminds me how sad it is that Franz Nicolay left The Hold Steady. While I don’t need it present on every subsequent release, I’ll gladly cop to smiling just listening to Darnielle get to croon over a field of brass on “Cry For Judas.” It helps make the music sound as large and dare I say epic as it’s always felt. The album also has a wonderful momentum, sounding perhaps the most like an actual band of any of their records. Drummer Jon Wurster in particular has fingerprints all over this thing, bringing jazzy flair to the title track and a restless energy to the paranoid “Night Light.” There are few missteps – “The Diaz Brothers” is kind of an awkward song, though perhaps worth is just to hear Darnielle’s bizarre pronunciation of “Diaz” – and “Counterfeit Florida Plates” tries to make up for a sketched melody with too many vocal ticks. But there’s enough beautiful, great tracks – “Lakeside View Apartment Suites”, “White Cedar”, the true life “Harlem Roulette” – to make this a more than worthy entry into the Mountain Goats canon.