Sitting somewhere between the indie rock of Heretic Pride (2008) and the soft piano ballads of The Life of the World to Come (2010), there’s a real sense of joy in the bulk of the songs on The Mountain Goats’ latest album Transcendental Youth.
As you would expect from frontman John Darnielle’s writing there is still a hell of a lot of lyrical self-help, with the track Until I Am Whole a fine addition to the Darnielle survival songbook. But with the birth of his son Roman this year he has presumably less time to wallow, as his life fills with even more hope and optimism.
The use of brass, arranged by Matthew E White, across the album probably best typifies the uplifting feel, particularly the trumpets on the relentlessly upbeat Cry for Judas and the sumptuous horn arrangement on White Cedar.
Adding to this upbeat feel is a change in the way the band arranges the songs, with Darnielle, drummer Jon Wurster and bassist Peter Hughes testing the songs out at gigs before taking them into the studio. This gives the tracks a greater sense of urgency and allows Wurster and Hughes to shine.
In Superchunk’s Wurster, who is also Bob Mould’s drummer of choice, and Hughes, Darnielle has the perfect accompaniment, with the bass and bass drum mirroring the heart of his songs, while Wurster’s snare apes his pent up anger magnificently. This is especially the case on the track Night Light.
Hughes bass run on Cry for Judas is also a wonderful addition and may perhaps not have been allowed to flourish under Darnielle’s previous method of write song, record song with band, play song live with band.
This mixture of working through songs on the hoof and then carefully recording them makes this among the more interesting of their releases.
Darnielle’s recruiting of White and his own keen ear for arrangements, which was taken to a new level on All Eternals Deck (2011)’s Age of Kings, is progressing well on this latest album, especially on White Cedar. It seems very likely that Owen Pallett, who Darnielle has been collaborating with this year, has been an influence on this album.
There are those that might find some of the tracks over produced, and there is perhaps a case for saying that about Lakeside View Apartments Suite. But surely there aren’t any Mountain Goats admirers left who think he should have stuck to belting out bedroom recordings on an old Panasonic boombox, as majestic as those early recording were.
Darnielle was, is and always will be a storyteller, he just uses slightly different methods and instruments to appeal to his listeners. And the odd horn arrangement here and there are hardly dramatic curve balls. I enjoy listening to how Darnielle’s talent for musical arrangements has developed over the years and look forward to more progress on future releases.
by Joe Lepper