After two decades, one would hope that a musician or band has developed their musical identity and has been able to come out with music that speaks to the listener, each album more enjoyable and stimulating than the next. There is no doubt that the Southern California man John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats has established his sound, but unfortunately his newest album Transcendental Youth, released early this month, doesn’t seem to offer any novelty. Or if it does, it’s not the kind one gets praise for. One thing certainly hasn’t changed. Even on the 14th album, you can expect his honest and almost speech tone voice. But instead of the usual acoustic guitar and occasional piano melody, Darnielle decided to explore different musical possibilities. Some may call that innovative, but I see Transcendental Youth as an attempt fallen short.
Not that their sound lacks allure, but John Darnielle and then the Mountain Goats (official in 2002) have not offered a novel sound in several years. Their secret weapon of dynamism is in their lyrics, the stories they tell. From their earlier concept albums to their jumble of inspiring medleys, this group has been able to hook us with their poetic abilities.
The entirety of Transcendental Youth is not one narrative. The last two albums Heretic Pride (2008) and All Eternals Deck (2011) fall under this category, and work quite well. But Darnielle took an extra step this time by expanding musically more than he has before. It’s as if he’s looking for a new sound to test out. I just wish he did that pre-production instead of on the album. “Amy aka Spent Gladiator I” opens and brings us back to Darnielles past work. But all of a sudden, he gives a Sufjan Stevens orchestral introduction in “Cry For Judas”. “Lakeside View Apartment Sale” and “White Cedar” somewhat mimic the angsty piano-and-pause Death Cab routine, which makes the sunshine and rainbows “Counterfeit Florida Plates” sound ridiculous. And what’s more unfortunate is that his shopping spree for different genres affected his lyrics. I know we’re dealing with a mixed bag when it comes to what’s being offered on this album, but Darnielle’s words are too distant to be cohesive. See for example a few lines from “The Diaz Brothers”: Draw my arms into a hospital gown, See the sky open up and rain down, rain down. “Counterfeit Florida Plates” comes next: Steal some sunscreen from the CVS, Use too much and make a great big mess.
He brings together these different styles at the end in “Transcendental Youth” which acts as a fine ending, but it is overshadowed by the confusion caused by a whirlwind of clashing sounds and senseless lyrics. Darnielle’s writing was always a bit trivial, but his different works in Transcendental Youth clash as opposed to cooperate.