By Andrew McNally Columnist
If you’re familiar with John Darnielle and his collective unit of a band called the Mountain Goats, then you know what you’re getting yourself into with an album titled “Transcendental Youth.” Although the album does not officially come out until next month, it is streaming on Rolling Stone’s website, and early reviews are already calling it one of the best albums in Darnielle’s career. Don’t think the Mountain Goats are like some of their peers who have released a good album or two before declining steadily over two decades. The Mountain Goats have proved to be relentless with the quality of their albums.
The most blatant factor to look at with any Mountain Goats album is John Darnielle’s lyrics. Darnielle is praised for lyrics that are equally poetic, referential and bleak, like an early Bob Dylan who sings about famous places, not people. “Transcendental Youth” has some of his best lyrics to date, with an album themed around the lives of a group of outcasts and recluses in a society that branded them that way. The lyrics, especially on tracks like “Cry For Judas” and “The Diaz Brothers” are so stereotypically John Darnielle-like, that it almost seems like Darnielle is trying to make fun of his own style, but by doing so, crafted even better lyrics.
Overall, there is nothing special about the music on the album. In fact, tracks like “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” and “White Cedar” start to wallow into a boring, folksy sadness that sound like something your mother might listen to, if it weren’t for the lyrics. But Darnielle’s high-pitched voice backs up the folk side of the music, and his acoustic guitar remains surprising. The twist of this album, though, is an added horn section. Darnielle never overuses the horns, like David Byrne and St. Vincent on their recent collaboration “Love This Giant,” but rather keeps the brass section in the background of some of the album’s better songs.
For most bands, it might not seem like a big change to add some horns to a few tracks, but Darnielle has always tried to keep the Mountain Goats low-key. The band’s first few albums, despite having the moniker of the Mountain Goats, were just John Darnielle with an acoustic guitar, recording songs at his house and using technology reluctantly and only when he had to. Twenty-one years and fourteen albums later, a horn section symbolizes the progressions Darnielle has gone through with his work. And knowing Darnielle’s poeticism, the additions of the horns may just have been purely symbolic.
“Transcendental Youth” isn’t one of the best albums of the year, but it is one of the better albums in the storied, curving career of the Mountain Goats. And that alone bears weight, given the band’s respect in the alternative and folk communities. “Transcendental Youth” will be released officially on October 2, and is recommended for anyone into the whole poetic-folk thing.