In a 1978 Good Morning America interview, Pete Townshend offered a neat summation of the therapeutic benefits of rock n’ roll: “Rock music is important to people because in this crazy world it allows you not to run away from the problems…to face up to them, but at the same time to sort of dance all over them. That’s what rock n’ roll’s about.” John Darnielle, who bills his prolific recording output as the work of a semi-real band known as the Mountain Goats, doesn’t always dance, but on Transcendental Youth he’s at least learned to shimmy, while his latest song cycle, in keeping with his usual m.o., evokes a “crazy world” peopled by half-angelic burnouts, with the prospect of redemption, musical or spiritual, always at a distance, but ever within sight.
On the new album, Darnielle sings with his traditional wrist-slitting earnestness and a precious enunciation that makes James Mercer sound like Ronnie James Dio. When backed by a piano, Darnielle can sound like a one-man simulacrum of the Avett Brothers, but his lyrics are better and his mortal apprehensions deeper. The singer-songwriter’s survival instinct has rarely felt this urgent—perhaps because he’s now a father, perhaps because he’s been thinking a lot about Amy Winehouse lately. Winehouse’s own needless demise animates two songs in particular: the opening track, which bears her name, and the penultimate song, a reprise of the first, both of which intone the same deceptively simple imperative: “Just stay alive.”
When Darnielle offers this exhortation, he’s not talking about mere survival: He means, stay raw, stay receptive, stay alive to pain and joy alike. The advice he offers isn’t for everyone: In “Spent Gladiator II,” he recommends getting smote and smacked down in the arena (because it builds character? Because it makes for good material?), while in “Amy aka Spent Gladiator I” he advocates playing with matches.
Darnielle has been open about his own heroin experience, and the new insights he offers here are something of a piece with John Lennon’s own post-heroin advice on Plastic Ono Band: “Feel your own pain!” This kind of heightened sensibility is precisely the kind of thing addicts generally run from—hence the fragility of Darnielle’s voice, which comes off less aggressive than on, say, Tallahassee. He’s no longer toting cases of vodka on road trips, and besides, the arrangements aren’t nearly as dark (indeed, they’re stronger than ever before). The introductory horn lick on the title track could practically come from an Impressions track circa 1966, and there are also moments where—lo and behold!—a rhythmic pocket is opened, as in the something-approaching-funk drum and bass break in the chorus to “Lakeside View Apartment.”
If Darnielle’s delivery can smack of Colin Meloy’s reediness, the brass is a welcome counterpoint, with strong horn hooks under the shimmying “Cry for Judas,” in which Darnielle observes that “Some things you do just to see how bad they’ll make you feel.” “White Cedar,” meanwhile, is a hymn of sorts, wherein the brass choir does excellent chest-swelling work. Such musical fullness is for the most part a deft, tantalizing ploy: the horns, piano, and bass will expand toward climax or release, but will always pull back, either because it’s all about the words or because the transcendental moment has already passed without our knowing it—perhaps, in fact, the point of the whole album. These are songs of confession and defiance, of adolescence glorified, sung by a 45-year-old man to his younger self, to our younger selves, but also to our current selves: When Darnielle sings, “The loneliest people in the whole wild world/Are the ones you’re never going to see again,” it’s both a yearbook inscription and a coded warning about the ever-present specter of suicide. On “White Cedar,” the most unsettling and memorable track, the singer declares, “I don’t have to be afraid/ Speed that day on its way.” It’s a prayer for death, but more so for absolution.
Darnielle wants you to play with matches, but to stop short of burning yourself alive. Transcendental Youth, Darnielle’s strident delivery and all, can be an exercise in sadomasochism, but at times a very rich one. Still, Darnielle seems willing to walk over coals that most of us would rather experience secondhand.