The Mountain Goats’ New Album
“You’d have to have personally been trapped and felt flames to really understand a terror way beyond falling.”
So wrote David Foster Wallace in his magnum opus “Infinite Jest,” attempting to relay to an outsider the inherent complications of trying to understand the urges behind suicide and self-destruction. How can one explain those feelings, that, to the lucky majority, seem fundamentally inconceivable? This incongruence, the apparent disconsonance between the drives in question and their shockingly alien nature to those who haven’t felt them in full, Wallace argues, represents a somewhat insurmountable issue of portrayal, an unbridgeable chasm between analyzing it and getting it.
Despite the difficulty of providing a representation of such feelings, artists of all disciplines have struggled to do just that. Transcendental Youth, the new album by The Mountain Goats, is the latest addition to this artistic pantheon, a testament and tribute to the strife of the depressed, the destructive, the addicted, the hopeless and an unflinching and triumphantly empathetic paean that ranks among John Darnielle and company’s best work.
Anyone who has followed The Mountain Goats and their music knows that they are no stranger to dark subject matter. Many of their best albums have dealt with serious pain. 2002’s Tallahassee tracked the disintegration of a marriage between two alcoholics looking for a new life, while 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed examined the intricacies of those recovering from drug addiction. 2005’s magnificent The Sunset Tree got down in the mud with Darnielle’s own childhood abuse and 2006’s Get Lonely was a monument to the all-encompassing existentialist pain of abandonment.Transcendental Youth adds brilliantly to this tradition, emerging as perhaps its preeminent entry.
While the album doesn’t follow a single narrative thread, each and every one of its songs relates clearly to its main theme, invoking Darnielle’s strengths as a storyteller as he embodies a host of different characters, each struggling with a unique set of demons. Wisely, the songs avoid the naming of disorders or analysis of their subjects, rather choosing to recount their thoughts free of commentary, using the straight-forward poetry and knack for personal detail that has made Darnielle such an exquisite songwriter.
The record begins with a bang with “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1,” an elegy for the late Amy Winehouse as well as a howling anthem to isolation, self-destruction, and survival at any cost. It’s at once a feel-good canticle and a brilliant denunciation of the traditional lyrical belief that darkness and life exist on opposite ends of the spectrum. “I hide down in my corner, because I like my corner,” Darnielle wails. Nobody on this album is here to be fixed, and he makes that clear right from the start.
In “Lakeside View Apartments Suite,” Darnielle inhabits the mind of an addict awaiting a fix, locked away from the world inside his apartment and within his own hunger, while still fervently rallying around community athletes. Meanwhile, “Cry For Judas” grapples with the guilt and self-loathing of feeling “broken” beyond repair.
The album’s masterpiece, however, comes in the form of “Harlem Roulette,” which ranks among the group’s best songs to date. Telling the true story of Frankie Lymon, an R&B singer abandoned by his childhood fame whose comeback was cut short by a deadly heroin overdose at age 25, the track discusses the posthumous transcendence of isolation and failure and the inherent ridiculousness of such consolation. “The loneliest people in the whole wide world are the one’s you’re never going to see again,” Darnielle sings, in the record’s best line. The simple yet devastating sentiment encapsulates Darnielle’s willingness to dignify the agony of his subjects, never prefacing or explaining away the elemental morbidity and melancholia of his chosen topic.
Even the tracks that don’t immediately leap out from the pack prove themselves upon subsequent listens. “Until I Am Whole” is an internal monologue of both spiritual and physical self-mutilation while “The Diaz Brothers” eulogizes two backstage characters from Brian DePalma’s “Scarface.” All the way through, Transcendental Youth provides complex and piercing arrangements throbbing beneath and around the poetry of destruction and resilience.
As someone who has struggled with many of the feelings with which the album deals for a number of years, I found myself moved and comforted, unmade and reassembled by the end of the record. Transcendental Youth is not here to tell anyone how to feel, or how anyone else feels for that matter. Rather, it’s a celebration of our best and worst feelings and the states of mind that force many to endure them on a manic shuffle. It’s one of the few albums that strives to understand without any expectation of actually understanding, a hand on the shoulder placed not to put an end to the sobbing but to anchor you as long as you need to continue. Toward the middle of the album, Darnielle cantillates: “I’ll be reborn someday, someday, if I wait long enough. I don’t have to be afraid. I don’t wanna be afraid. And you can’t tell me what my spirit tells me isn’t true, can you?” Darnielle knows he can’t and he won’t. But if you want him to, he’ll wait while you piece it together, tears, rages, and all.