John Darnielle can be a frustrating dude. The highs are high: 2005’s “The Sunset Tree”stands tall as a bonafide masterpiece, but the lows are just as low – try the heavy handed 2009’s “The Life of the World to Come” if you’re curious. It seems that every other Mountain Goats record hits a high note. Last year’s “All Eternals Deck” was fine, but it doesn’t come close to the mastery of their latest, “Transcendental Youth”.
In the two distinct eras of this band – the pre-2002 low-fi boombox recordings and the subsequent studio recordings, Darnielle’s catalog is a rollercoaster ride of ups and downs. There’s a startling emotional undercurrent to his work, and here it clicks perfectly.
Horns are all over the album, from the upbeat ‘Cry for Judas’ to the meditative dirge of ‘White Cedar’. It’s lovely, lush with it’s perfectly timed swells. Followed by the acoustic ‘Until I Am Whole’ it creates a great compliment to the previous track’s delicateness. ‘The Diaz Brothers’ is a propellant number that’s akin to Mountain Goats classics like ‘This Year’ and ‘Dance Music’, and the title track has a horn intro that wouldn’t be out of place in a fifties sitcom.
Unlike some of it’s predecessors, none of the elements of ”Transcendental Youth” are overbearing. That’s plagued some of their previous albums. Every arrangement is carefully chosen. There’s no ‘square peg in a round hole’ effect that comes with some of Darnielle’s songwriting. This album plays like a hits collection from the studio-recorded era of this band.
“Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive,” advises Darnielle at the beginning of ‘Amy (aka Spent Gladiator 1)’. Those are pretty wise words. Maybe with album after album that’s what he was doing.
This time, he got it right.