The Mountain Goats – Transcendental Youth (Merge)
By Scott Creney
The website that is streaming this album says Transcendental Youth sounds like The Hold Steady and Okervill River. That’s got to hurt.
John Darnielle’s always been a better storyteller than most songwriters, which isn’t the same thing as being a great storyteller. His formula’s always been pretty straightforward — lots of details punctuated by simply spoken proverbs, a funnier, sloppier Raymond Carver.
Or to put it another, crueler way, Darnielle fashions Hallmark epiphanies out of his Wal-Mart realism.
Look, I’m well aware that when we talk about issues of depth, of emotional power, we are already up to our chins in subjective stuff. One man’s Celine Dion catharsis is another one’s repulsed shrug. You should probably listen for yourself and form your own opinions.
I’m not slamming his formula. I just that think that John Darnielle used to be a lot better at it, that’s all. His specifics sucked you into the story and his truths hit harder. But the power he once wrung out of the plain, straightforward language in his lyrics has diminished over time, dulled through familiarity.
Or maybe you think the phrase “days like dominos all in a line” is really beautiful. Let me be clear: that’s one of the best images on the album. But be aware, if you think a chorus like “The loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you’ll never see again” qualifies as literary, then you’re not reading the right books. In fact, it’s entirely possible you aren’t reading at all.
Darnielle uses geography as a shortcut, a substitute for character development. He sings of dark corners that breathe like heavy animals, outlaws clutching gold coins in their claws. It’s Cormac McCarthy-lite, without the attendant power or the nihilism. There is nothing even remotely frightening in a Mountain Goats song, not anymore.
If John Darnielle were Burt Bacharach, or even Vince Clarke, all this picking over his words wouldn’t matter. But he isn’t. Musically, Transcendental Youth completes a fidelic journey over the band’s career from boombox recordings to pristine studios. Unfortunately, the result sounds like Billy Joel, or The Beautiful South, only with less inventive hooks and arrangements.
I used to be unbearably moved by Mountain Goats music. But I can find nothing of value in Transcendental Youth and I can’t say for sure which one of us has changed.
But those people who fervently wish for new Neutral Milk Hotel albums should think a little harder about the potential downside of more Neutral Milk Hotel albums. Artistic legacies have been undone by good intentions and not knowing when to quit, or prevent a slow uninspiring slide.
As music Transcendental Youth is unsatisfying; as a novel it’s borderline insulting. Every artist is a god to those who are shallower and more sentimental than themselves. For John Darnielle that number continues to shrink with every new album.