When John Hodgeman (known to most through The Daily Show and Mac/PC guy commercials) wrote the press release for the album you’re reviewing, you know we’re off to a great start. “Transcendental Youth is full of songs about people who madly, stupidly, blessedly won’t stop surviving, no matter who gives up on them,” he writes. He sums up the album with more than just his words—his comedic presence alone exemplifies what I love so much about his subject’s songwriting: these are sad songs written by one hilarious fucking dude.
But Hodgeman’s right. On opener “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” John Darnielle is urging his protagonist to "just stay alive" over a beat of incessant rim clicks. This comes back around near the album’s end on “Spent Gladiator 2,” jumping from one simile to the next: like an aging boxer convinced to "Show up in shining colors / And then stand there and get hit." But then on the closing title track, the big band swings as he amends his statement to "Stay sick / Don’t get well." So...stay barely alive? The paradox is that these songs about living on the brink are punctuated with joyous blasts of brass and lovely woodwind chords.
It’s hard to keep track, but I think this the Mountain Goats’ 15th full-length album [Eighteenth if you count the three cassette-only albums—Joe Pelone], and it for sure is their second for über-respected indie Merge. Through all those albums, songwriter Darnielle has collaborated with many musicians, but on the last few has settled into a lovely groove with bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster (of Superchunk, another hilarious guy).
And the horns! “Cry For Judas” is where they really shine, countering Darnielle’s bleak sentiments of "All is lost" with cheery descending trumpet blasts. “The Diaz Brothers” is another standout, pounding with a four-on-the-floor beat (and later, handclaps!) and pulsing piano, and a simple chorus that is just begging for future crowd singalongs. “Lakeside View Apartment Suite” starts off with menacing piano chords but soon lurches into a somber groove, filled in with ambient keyboards. “Night Light” is equally as menacing ("Live like an outlaw / Clutching gold coins in his claw"), with a grinding organ filling in behind the trio.
Last year’s All Eternal’s Deck was no slouch, but Transcendental Youth may contain the most outright toe-tapping songs since 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed, (“Harlem Roulette” especially recalls that album), and yet there is a nice chill out section in the middle of the album. “White Cedar” pulls back the percussion and lets horn swells and piano fill the air, and “Until I Am Whole” experiments with some ghostly effects on Darnielle’s chorus vocal.
While Eternal felt a bit disjointed to me, likely because of the multitude of producers, Transcendental flows beautifully from song-to-song with perfect sequencing. Another fantastic addition to the Mountain Goats’ catalogue.