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Text by John Norris @jonnynono
Each of the fourteen albums in John Darnielle's catalogue as The Mountain Goats has its something of its own identity, often a full-on concept. But what they share in common are richly drawn people and places, more often than not characteres who are downtrodden, hurting, sick, sometimes barely hanging on.
Certainly those folks get their due on the Goats' latest, the rather glorious Transcendental Youth, which might be subtitled "Demons and Horns". As for demons, they're everywhere, from that Aeron Alfrey-designed cover, to the lives on the album. On the two-part "Spent Gladiator" (Part 1 was inspired by the late Amy Winehouse), Darnielle offers a piece of advice that works for any of us: "stay alive". On "Counterfeit Florida Plates", he sings of a homeless schizophrenic. And on the rousing "Cry For Judas", on which horns come in, courtesy of Matthew E. White, it's no less than the man vilified for enternity for his betrayal of Christ who gets a measure of sympathy from Darnielle, for simply playing the part that fate destined him to play, and through which we all, the story goes, have redemption.
And on the moving, bleak "Until I Am Whole", the first song written for the record, the protagonist is just trying to hang on. "Sunset on Snohomish" the song begins, and when I spoke to Darnielle recently how that image sparked much of the rest of the song:
As you can tell, often there’s first a geographical detail. And that probably was one of those ones where I might sing a place name and it might evoke something for me. And Snohomish evokes the poetry of Richard Hugo and the Pacific Northwest, which is where I had my sort of extended 18-year old hour of darkness. When I was really into dope. But yeah, when I think of being alone an desperate and depressed I think about winter in the Pacific Northwest, when the sun doesn’t come out and to me it was freezing at the time because I was from California. But that sort of constantly overcast close grey sky, and firs. And I think if you manage to be OK with not feeling OK for a while, you can learn something about that piece of yourself. So that’s where that’s from. So it’s probably me. Not the me that’s sitting before you, because the me who’s sitting before you is a happy dad who likes to make music and stuff. But I think you’re all the people you ever were, to some extent they’re all in there and you can inhabit them all from time to time.
And few evoke them more eloquently than John Darnielle. Look for our full conversation with him next week on Noisevox's Face Time, along with a performance of a song from the album, but for now, enjoy an album that's does justice to its name. The latest from The Mountain Goats, Transcendental Youth.