Graded on a Curve:
The Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth

The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle has a knack for the numinous; more than any musical artist I know, more than Van Morrison even, he possesses the amazing capacity to part the invisible veil that separates us from our spirit selves. His best songs brim with transcendence, captured in remarkably vivid detail and concrete metaphors that bring home the fact that we are so much more than mere flesh and blood.

On 2004’s We Shall All Be Healed he gave us “Against Pollution,” which offset a fatal liquor store shooting against a lovely and moving evocation of a final reckoning that is totally personal; “When the last days come,” he sings, “We shall see visions/More vivid than sunsets/Brighter than stars/We will recognize each other/And see ourselves for the first time/The way we really are.” On 2012’s Transcendental Youth he bequeathed us “White Cedar,” on which he sings, “Like a star come down to walk the Earth in radiant array/I saw the light of my spirit descend the other day/I was standing the bus stop on North East 33rd/When I got the word/I will be made a new creature/One bright day.”

Darnielle is without a doubt the best lyricist working in the field of rock music; a storyteller of mesmerizing subtlety, he has the uncanny ability to speak through his characters, who tend to be outsiders and down-and-outers who seem dead set on repeating the same mistakes over and over again but possess just enough hope to believe they’ll find a way out. Or in some cases, enough stubborn defiance to proudly sing while the ship sinks. I direct you to “No Children,” in which a man in a doomed marriage sings hopefully about taking one final fateful swan dive to the bottom: “I am drowning/There is no sign of land/You are coming down with me/Hand in unlovable hand/And I hope you die/I hope we both die.”

I’ve yet to hear a pedestrian Mountain Goats LP, but Transcendental Youth shines even by Darnielle’s lofty standards. A shaggy, 12-song concept album that follows a ragtag collection of characters living hardscrabble lives in Washington state, Transcendental Youth succeeds on the same strength that makes all of Darnielle’s albums special; namely his ability to channel the voices and tell the stories of people who appear hell-bent on self-destruction. Just check out the death-defying but ultimately life-affirming “Amy Spent Gladiator 1,” which opens with the lines “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive/Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away/Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make/Climb limits past the limits/Jump in front of trains all day.”

Or the character in the slow march that is “Until I Am Whole” who sings, “Hold my hopes under water/Stand there and watch them drown” but who grimly intends to hold on: “I think I’ll stay here until I feel whole again/I don’t know when.” Or the most likely paranoid guy in “Counterfeit Florida Plates” who spends his days license-plate watching and sings, “Calculate magnetic north/And turn the other way/Wait for the coming disaster/I could do this all day.” And talk about your divided souls; on the title track the imagery cuts both ways, with the seemingly mystical lines “And take to the skies/Sour ever upward” being followed by the very dark “On air gone black with flies.” And when it comes to holding fast to that which is killing you it’s hard to beat the lines “Learn some secrets/Never tell/Stay sick/Don’t get well.”

“Lakeside View Apartments Suite” constitutes the will and testament of an angel-dust loving loser and his crew, who are holed up in a cheap apartment house and waiting for that “crystal clear connection.” “You can’t judge,” he sings, “you’re not the judge,” but his verdict on himself is damning enough–his is, he sings, “One whole life recorded in disappearing ink.” On the horn-driven “Cry for Judas”–the snazzy horn arrangements and lots of great drumming by Jon Wurster distinguish Transcendental Youth from most of the Mountain Goats’ earlier LPs–Darnielle outdoes himself; this is his ultimate paean to those people who “Speed up to the precipice” then “don’t slow down at all.” “Some things you do just to see/How bad they’ll make you feel,” he sings, adding, “I am just a broken machine/And do things that I don’t really mean.” He hallucinates “a shady grove where Judas went to die” but unlike Judas he survives “the long black night.” But to what end? ”I’m still here,” he sings, “but all is lost.”

The sprightly “Harlem Roulette” evokes a Frankie Lymon who is busy tracking “Sea Breeze” in a studio in Harlem in 1968 only to announce, “The loneliest people in the whole wide world/Are the ones you’re never going to see again.” “Leave a little mark on something, maybe” is as hopeful as Darnielle gets, but this hope is offset by the stark lines, “Nothing in the shadows but the shadow hands/Reaching out to sad, young, frightened men.” And while he pleads for mercy on “The Diaz Brothers,” the reality he envisions is much darker: “Keep one step ahead of enemies/Foretell worse things than such frightful nights as these/Lead us to the beach by our hands/And bury us there in the sand.”

At the risk of sounding glib, Darnielle doesn’t write lyrics, he writes literature; he puts just as much care into his little tales as Flannery O’Connor put into her Southern grotesqueries. This may be self-evident to anybody who has ever listened to one of his albums, but I’ve heard no else say it and it deserves to be said.

John Darnielle dwells in the shadowlands between body and spirit; his characters may burn their sad lives down but in moments profound dream of being made new creatures, having divested their mortal shells at last. Allen Ginsberg wrote, “It’s hard to eat shit, without having visions,” and just like Ginsberg, Darnielle’s fictional creations do more than just eat shit and stay alive–they see portents of salvation in the grey skies above Washington state.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
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