At least since the outwardly autobiographical The Sunset Tree, if not earlier, what’s emerged as the major theme of John Darnielle’s songwriting is the collective stories of downtrodden/outcast/ignored/abused people struggling to survive amidst the pain, memories and demons haunting them. That theme is more in the open these days, coinciding with the group’s continued musical clarification – an increasing unity of purpose and sound – and with Darnielle’s more direct explanations about what his songs are about. The musician who once cut an email interview with me short after evading my (too) many “what is this song about?” questions now does stage banter relating that, for example, a particular song is about him losing his virginity. Listen to recordings of live shows for the tour supporting 2011’s All Eternals Deck and you will hear him introduce many of his songs as stories from his life, or those of people he once knew. You may also hear him sing the unrecorded song “You Were Cool”, perhaps the most overt “message” song about bullying and abuse he’s done, and an anthem for mistreated youth. “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”, the first song on the new Mountain Goats album Transcendental Youth, seems a close relative of that song, for its second-person perspective and the position the characters are in. The first line – “do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive / do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away” – starts a litany of survival-tactic instructions that ends with the message “stay alive / just stay alive”, a sentiment that re-emerges in the connected song “Spent Gladiator 2” at the end of the album, thus seeming like the album’s overall message to those struggling.
Darkness is everywhere here, in the minds and dwellings of our struggling heroes, as it was on All Eternals Deck. That album’s occult themes helped it play up the darkness, sometimes in the sound too. In keeping with the Transcendental Youth setting—the notion of young people rising above, to quote Black Flag—this time the songs as a whole feel lighter, even as their inhabitants are haunted by countless demons. Some of those demons are spelled out, others are not. A line that leaps out and hits you in the third song (“Cry for Judas”) contains some of the former: “mistreat your altar boys / and this is what you get”. It’s delivered with a slight snarl, as the music keeps up a runner’s (or dancer’s) pace, driving the inner anger home. The bouncy horns of that song may suggest happiness, but they’re playing counterpoint within a song whose chief sentiment is, “I’m still here / but all is lost”. The key figure is stalked by storms, hallucinations and a general darkness. Here he fits right in with the crowd. Our friends here feel trapped in their own skins, in metaphorical cells or actual ones, and either escape into the darkness or are continually running from it. “I think I’ll stay here ‘til I feel whole again / I don’t know when,” Darnielle sings on “Until I Am Whole”, a sort of center spot halfway through the album which is calm but in an unsettled (and unsettling way). There is no real calm within the storm for those whose lives contain enough pain (and painful memories).
There is a ghostly backing vocal on that song which offers the perfect example of how in sync the music and the lyrics are, whether the music fits the expected mood or plays against it, and of how many small musical touches help this become a compelling overall portrait of survival. The lightness throughout comes in part from the amount of piano, some strings (on “White Cedar”, one of the prettiest Mountain Goats songs ever) and the nimble horns on several songs, arranged by Matthew E. White (whose fine 2012 album Big Inner would make a nice, relaxed companion to Transcendental Youth. That all culminates in the jazzy reverie of the final song, the title track, where the troubled youth rise up in triumphant escape of their demons, sort of, while the horns and Jon Wurster’s jazzy track, and declare, their rise. “Stay sick / don’t be well” might be unlikely advice for a song of uplift (or at least release), but it isn’t here; to be sick is to stay who you are—scars, black heart and all.
The music can get dense enough to play up the tension in these songs in a more expected way (“Night Light”) but more often represents the starkness in Darnielle’s portraits; presenting everything in crisp, clear terms. Close listeners will find many small musical flourishes that echo with the lyrics. The Mountain Goats are getting ever better at giving us more to focus on in their word-heavy songs than just the words, while uniting it all perfectly. A great example is “Lakeside View Apt Suite”, which starts with a piano note and a dramatic pause, before building a deceptively serene, yet deeply sad, atmosphere around its description of an apartment where an anxious soul awaits his crew of drug-sellers and users. When he sings, “you can’t judge us / you’re not the judge”, his voice takes on a slight tone of anger and bitterness, before soon dropping down to a whisper, using the quiet-singing techniques he’s been perfecting in recent years, after diving into it on the sublime 2006 album Get Lonely. When he sings, “emerge transformed in a million years / from days like these”, it strikes a note of triumph, or at least hope, within a chilling atmosphere. The chorus “lakeside view / for my whole crew” forms quite the unexpected hook, a non-standard version of the big melody that will get stuck in your head all day. The way the song is constructed makes the chorus carry the rest of the song into your head with it. So you’ll get stuck on that chorus and find yourself right back in that apartment over the lake, with its haunted inhabitants.
That is the crux of what makes this album shine—it is an unlikely collection of absolute pop anthems, more so than most Mountain Goats albums. There are songs here with the great bright rush that people want from a pop song—the catchy chorus, melodies propelled by instruments (drums, guitar, bass, piano) in an upward direction. Yet those songs—“Cry for Judas”, “Harlem Roulette”, “the Diaz Brothers”, “Counterfeit Florida Plates”—also present to us people who are paranoid, hurt, lonely, and at the end of their ropes, even. These people and their emotions cannot be separated from the melodic hooks. When we sing along, for example, with a chorus that goes, “the loneliest people in the whole wide world / are the ones you’re never going to see again”, we too are haunted.