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The Mountain Goats
Transcendental Youth Alfred Soto , October 1st, 2012 11:01

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If John Darnielle needed a slogan, look no further than "Do every stupid thing to drive the dark away" from 'Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1,' the first track from Transcendental Youth, his new album under the Mountain Goats moniker. Strumming an acoustic guitar ferociously enough to worry about the safety of the strings, he’s keeping darkness at bay one note at a time. In a career of apt album titles, this might be the best: Darnielle’s empathy for tweakers and stealers of sunscreen from CVS springs from a belief in youth as a state of continual stimulation, during which characters stumble from experiences that look like epiphanies when there’s a writer to record them.

It’s not, however, his best album. Unlike last year’s All Eternals Deck, on which each song could have stood on its own as a future compilation entry, Transcendental Youth trades discrete for discreet. The first hint is the reliance on piano. With the exception of 'White Cedar,' in which trumpets herald the character’s gritted-teeth triumph, experiments with horn arrangements like 'Cry For Judas' and the title track come off like screenwriters 'opening up' stage plays. Darnielle’s magisterial gift for commands as aphorisms, which peaked on All Eternals Deck's 'Beautiful Gas Mask' ("Never sleep, remember to breathe deep"), matters less this time than narratives in which characters endure the grueling duty of bearing witness. Fortunately Darnielle’s learned enough about dynamics and rhythm sections to lend 'Lakeside View Apartments' the grimness of his beloved influence, Gaucho era Steely Dan: a sense of dust motes spinning in streaks of sunlight, a vertiginous suspension before the lines, "And just before I leave/I throw up in the sink."

These suburban kids getting their kicks where they find them reach closer to Ann Beattie than, say, Denis Johnson: good times before a beloved friend ODs or a marriage dissolves; songs fade as their outlines become clear. It’s the delicacy of these elisions that have made fans draw breaths for two decades. On Transcendental Youth, however, the outlines look like limits. Shades of Gaucho’s 'Third World Man' spook 'In Memory of Satan,' about a recluse coming to love isolation, the brass section swelling to match his confidence. If the track works, credit Darnielle’s confidence in his thin, high voice and querulous tone; it shades his narratives with skepticism. It does more work than necessary.

Short on melodies commensurate with his mastery of both suggestion and accusation, Transcendental Youth is prime headphone bait, where Darnielle's voice and lyrics get the scrutiny they deserve. 'The Diaz Brothers,' though, deserves to become an audience favorite: a galloping rocker set to piano about a pair of criminal lowlifes. It’s worthy of Zevon and if FM radio looked like 1977 would deserve to be a hit. Even better, it’s a crystalline example of what Alfred Kazin wrote in praise of Kafka: the unreasonableness of things made totally believable by his humility of language. On the whole, though, call Transcendental Youth a stumble and wait for the next Mountain Goats release next year.

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Oct 1, 2012 6:36pm

This review is a grammatical nightmare.

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Oct 2, 2012 1:24pm

In reply to aaron.:

Seconded, them's some oddly-chosen sentences.

I don't get the bit about 'The first hint is the reliance on piano', either. It sounds like a lead-in, but then there's a load of stuff about horns. The next time piano's mentioned is in the final paragraph, where it's framed as quite the opposite of 'discreet', which I think was the point made earlier...

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barney kettlefish
Oct 2, 2012 7:39pm

review no worse than the album which insufferable, anoydyn AND unlistenable-- hat trick!!

darnielle and others of his ilk are "great" though for people that like reading or writing about banal music + lyrics than actually listening to diverse musics of incomparably greater depth and reading...

Alasdair Gray died for this?!?!

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Oct 2, 2012 9:32pm

In reply to barney kettlefish:

Other than the displaced modifier in the first sentence and a missing transition or two in the second paragraph, I don't see what's particularly offensive to a grammarian.

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Oct 3, 2012 10:04am

In reply to barney kettlefish:

...or they're just great for English Lit grads who like a good ol' boo. This is in no way to their detriment.

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Oct 3, 2012 4:15pm

In reply to Jones:

The general syntax of the review reads like a particularly egregious pseuds' corner Pitchfork review that has been put through the Google Translate mangler about 3 times. However, its content - beneath the impenetrable prose - does make me want to check out the record. So some props due there.

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