After having a consistently great and prolific ’00s, the 2010s were a little more hit-or-miss for The Mountain Goats. Granted, The Mountain Goats are a fairly cult-y band, so you could say that the band as a whole are a little hit-or-miss. Meaning their music hits you in a soft gooey part of your gut that reminds you how beautiful it is to be a weirdo, or John Darnielle’s voice is a just a little too nasally and his songs are a little too heady to do much for you. Either way, I’m sure there’s some debate among fans, but for my money, Transcendental Youth still stands as the band’s best album of the decade.
At this point, how good a Mountain Goats album is usually has a lot to do with how much John Darnielle is able to expand on his rock-solid foundation as a songwriter. The dude has about as much lyrical prowess as any tunesmith out there, while he more or less made his greatest statement with just a voice and an acoustic guitar on 2002’s lo-fi opus All Hail West Texas. And while sometimes the lyrical themes will bring out a profound inspiration, such as on career high-mark The Sunset Tree, a lot of it comes down to how Darnielle can tweak his sound.
Ever since drummer Jon Wurster was added to the band’s consistent line-up in 2007, The Mountain Goats had been drifting toward a fuller sound, and Transcendental Youth may be the pinnacle of this transition. The core of Darnielle’s acoustic guitar, bassist Peter Hughes’ fretwork, and Wurster’s drumming serve as the backbone of the album. Meanwhile, it features various horns and organ sounds that make their way into the mix, while the album also sees Darnielle leaning a bit more on his piano work than his ever trusty, ever strummy acoustic guitar.
Other than that, Darnielle just manages to deliver some of his best songs here. “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” does a great job of summing up the Mountain Goats’ M.O., with its urging the listener to “just stay alive” through all the various garbage that the world hurls at you and you inevitably hurl at yourself. Then there’s “The Diaz Brothers”, which might be one of the catchier songs in The Mountain Goats catalog, propelled by a piano-induced stomp and a chorus that I had fun shouting along when I saw The Mountain Goats live, even if I wasn’t quite sure why I was requesting mercy for the song’s titular brothers.
I mentioned that The Mountain Goats’ best work often tends to come when Darnielle is addressing some sort of specific issue in his life or his past. Transcendental Youth might play into this, since it was the first album’s worth of material he wrote after having a child. I’m not sure how much credence to give this, since none of the songs seem to be about fatherhood (at least, overtly). Though it does feel in a way like Darnielle is indulging the restlessness of his past just one more time, while the bittersweetness of responsibility waits just around the corner.