John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats continue to conjure sympathetic connections to their outsider subjects. Darnielle gives these characters voice, with tones that are by turns resigned, challenging, or occasionally defensive. While the stories dominate the songs on Transcendental Youth, the Mountain Goats continue to find the right simple backing to support the emotional feel of the narratives. One big change from previous albums is the addition of nuanced horn arrangements to several of the tracks, thanks to Matthew E. White. On earlier releases, the band has been labeled as folk rock, based on the central role of acoustic guitar, but the brass moves the band's sound further away from folk.
Transcendental Youth opens with a perfect message to match the title:
Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive"Amy (AKA Spent Gladiator I)" was inspired by Amy Winehouse's demise, but serves as an epistle to all the wild youth. It's not entirely clear whether Darnielle's advice is sarcastic or just telling his targets what they need to hear, but the tagline, "Just stay alive" is certainly heartfelt. Jon Wurster's steady beat anchors the processional chord progression, giving the track a post punk vibe. The clever lyrics and catchy hooks make this most likely to be covered by a hundred sincere garage bands in the coming year.
Do every stupid thing to try to drive the dark away
Let people call you crazy for the choices that you make
Find limits past the limits, jump in front of trains all day
And stay alive
After such an affirmation, the next track, "Lakeside View Apartments Suite" takes on a tunnel-vision darkness. Simple piano and vocal build a wall against any sentimentality is this case study of hopelessness and addiction. The chorus hints at Bruce Springsteen's "It's Hard to be a Saint in the City", but with a desperate edge. Everything is falling apart, feeding the tension: "And just before I leave, I throw up in the sink / One whole life recorded in disappearing ink." These two songs measure the range of material on Transcendental Youth, from the jaunty "The Diaz Brothers" to the moody surrender of "Night Light".
Like their earlier releases, individual lines stand out: "Long, black night, morning frost / I'm still here but all is lost" from "Cry for Judas" or "Hold my hopes underwater / Stand there and watch them drown" from "Until I am Whole". These simple phrases suggest back tales of bad luck and poor choices, but Darnielle's voice gives them an acknowledgement if not a whitewashed character study.
The title cut serves as a refreshing appendix to the album. White's horn arrangement is lush and Wurster's rimshot rhythm locks the tune into a jazz feel that buoys Darnielle's lyrics. The poetic lines are grounded with gritty imagery: "Cedar smudge our headbands and take to the skies / Soar ever upwards on air gone black with flies." The music plays a stronger role here than anywhere else on the disc, suggesting that however bad it gets, they're prepared to deal with it and move on.