The Mountain Goats, 'Transcendental Youth'
Early in The Mountain Goats' new album Transcendental Youth, in a song called "Harlem Roulette", John Darnielle describes all the mundane details of a recording session for 60s pop singer Frankie Lymon's song "Seabreeze": "Just a pair of tunes to hammer out / Everybody's off the clock by ten." Then, out of nowhere, he alludes to tragedy in the hook, "The loneliest people in the whole wide world / are the ones you're never going to see again." It doesn't make sense until you learn the detail he skipped in the middle: after recording "Seabreeze", Lymon, who was 25, went home and overdosed on heroin. By the time that hook rolls around again, after "some no-one from the future" hears "Seabreeze" on the radio, you're in on the joke: the implication is a similarly tragic outcome for the no one.
If you're familiar with The Mountain Goats at all, this probably sounds like every single one of their records (and there's one pretty much every year). For sure, Darnielle once devoted a whole album (Tallahassee) to a nameless Florida couple who drinks their marriage to death in an old plantation house. On one haunting song in The Life of the World to Come he commented on a verse in Deuteronomy that references the genocide of a people group called the Emims (The Bible's own Diaz Brothers) by describing the last moments of the last dodo bird. Darnielle's fascination with tragic (and tragicomic) nobodies borderlines on obsession, and it stretches through his whole career arc.
There's often a light in the darkness, though. Darnielle buoys his songs with a scrappy humanism that makes the bad stuff bearable. A good example of this is the life-affirming chorus from "This Year" (if you've only heard one Mountain Goats song, that's probably it): "I am gonna make it through this year / if it kills me!" It's a light in the darkness, for sure, but it's not hope—just a kind of raw humanity.
In Youth that light is given body by a full horn section arranged by Matthew E White. Most of the songs are arranged in keeping with the last two or three Mountain Goats albums: acoustic power trio pop songs; simple, chord-based piano ballads; fingerpicked guitar; Darnielle's inside-voice. But those horns are a curveball; White's arrangement style is rooted in the same soul-era throwback as the Dap-Kings, and over these songs they add a weird depth and mystery. Check out "In Memory of Satan," which describes the life of a paranoid recluse, and is as honest a portrayal of mental illness as I've ever heard in a pop song. Over simple piano chords, Darnielle's narrator describes repainting his apartment, possibly getting high, and then falling asleep on the floor. Then he wakes up:
Make some scratches on my floor
Crawled out on my hands and knees
In old movies people scream
Choking on their fists when they see shadows like these
At this point, the arrangement drops down to a single decaying piano chord, while Darnielle sings the next lines:
But no one screams
Cause it's just me
Locked up in myself
Never gonna get free
An unexpected and towering flourish of horns underpins that moment of self-revelation, giving it a complex emotional color that's hard to describe. It's a dramatic, modern-sounding moment that feels jarring, out of place in such an intimate song. White's horns only appear on four songs on the album; and Darnielle chose for one of them to be the one about a guy losing it quietly in his apartment, trying like hell to keep his head on straight. That seems really kind.
One song doesn't sit well with me, and I'll try to explain why. The opener, "Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1", is the kind of life-affirming anthem that Mountain Goats nerds will dance to at their wedding receptions, with its imperative to "Do every stupid thing / that makes you feel alive / Do every stupid thing / to try to drive the dark away." That seems to be Darnielle's idea of youth: these moments of alive-ness that flare up in us—regardless of our age—against life's "perfect howl of emptiness". The imperative to "do every stupid thing" sits in tension with the rest of the album, where those very same "stupid things" seem to be what leave Darnielle's characters so desperate, and often lead to their demise. This makes me sound square, but I don't like that—it's reactionary and it accepts meaninglessness as an a priori and I don't understand it and it bugs me. It seems, well, stupid.
I think the characters in Transcendental Youth would be happy that song bugs me; I think that's part of the point. These guys are outsiders, and they don't care what I think anyway. Like John sings in the last song: "By the time you receive this, we'll be gone."