-->
Music

The Mountain Goats: Transcendental Youth

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: music, lyrics, emotions.


The Mountain Goats

Transcendental Youth

Label: Merge
US Release Date: 2012-10-02
UK Release Date: 2012-10-02
Amazon
iTunes

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.

8
Music

The Best Indie Rock of 2017

Photo courtesy of Matador Records

The indie rock genre is wide and unwieldy, but the musicians selected here share an awareness of one's place on the cultural-historical timeline.

Indie rock may be one of the most fluid and intangible terms currently imposed upon musicians. It holds no real indication of what the music will sound like and many of the artists aren't even independent. But more than a sonic indicator, indie rock represents a spirit. It's a spirit found where folk songsters and punk rockers come together to dialogue about what they're fed up with in mainstream culture. In so doing they uplift each other and celebrate each other's unique qualities.

With that in mind, our list of 2017's best indie rock albums ranges from melancholy to upbeat, defiant to uplifting, serious to seriously goofy. As always, it's hard to pick the best ten albums that represent the year, especially in such a broad category. Artists like King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard had a heck of a year, putting out four albums. Although they might fit nicer in progressive rock than here. Artists like Father John Misty don't quite fit the indie rock mold in our estimation. Foxygen, Mackenzie Keefe, Broken Social Scene, Sorority Noise, Sheer Mag... this list of excellent bands that had worthy cuts this year goes on. But ultimately, here are the ten we deemed most worthy of recognition in 2017.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less
Music

The Best Country Music of 2017

still from Midland "Drinkin' Problem" video

There are many fine country musicians making music that is relevant and affecting in these troubled times. Here are ten of our favorites.

Year to year, country music as a genre sometimes seems to roll on without paying that much attention to what's going on in the world (with the exception of bro-country singers trying to adopt the latest hip-hop slang). That can feel like a problem in a year when 58 people are killed and 546 are injured by gun violence at a country-music concert – a public-relations issue for a genre that sees many of its stars outright celebrating the NRA. Then again, these days mainstream country stars don't seem to do all that well when they try to pivot quickly to comment on current events – take Keith Urban's muddled-at-best 2017 single "Female", as but one easy example.

Keep reading... Show less

Wars of attrition are a matter of stamina, of who has the most tools with which to keep fighting. A surprising common tool in this collection? Humor.

The name of the game is "normal or abnormal". Here's how you play: When some exceedingly shocking political news pops up on your radar, turn to the person next to you, read them the headline and ask, "is this normal or abnormal?" If you want to up the stakes, drink a shot every time the answer is abnormal. If that's too many shots, alter the rules so that you drink only when things are normal—which is basically never, these days. Hilarious, right?

Keep reading... Show less
9
Music

The Dear Hunter: All Is As All Should Be EP

Jordan Blum
Publicity photo via Bandcamp

Although All Is As All Should Be is a tad too brief to match its precursors, it's still a masterful blend of songwriting, arrangements, and singing that satisfies the Dear Hunter anticipation.

The Dear Hunter is undoubtedly one of the best—and consequently, most egregiously underappreciated—bands of the last decade or so. Aside from 2013's Migrant LP, every one of their major releases featured an ambitious hook; for example, 2011's The Color Spectrum presented nine EPs (consisting of four songs each) that individually represented a different sonic tone (in order: Black, Red, Orange, Yellow, Green, Blue, Indigo, Violet, and White), whereas the five-part (so far) Act saga, with its genre-shifting arrangements, superlative songwriting, narrative complexity, and extraordinary conceptual continuity, is a cumulative work of genius, plain and simple.

Keep reading... Show less
8
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 Popmatters.com. All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.

rating-image