Transcendental Youth is an album about being young and reckless, about Frankie Lymon, about the Diaz Brothers, about running and jumping and leaving everything behind. An album about the fleetingness of youth that could, perhaps ironically, only have been written with the age and maturity of a musician like John Darnielle.
The album starts with a commandment: “Do every single thing that makes you feel alive.” “Jump in front of trains”, “play with matches”. It’s another faux-biblical exposition from a band who two albums ago titled their songs with bible verses. They’re powerful commandments, not least because they’re wrapped up in a litany of Mountain Goats line structures, thoughts so tautological they rhyme with themselves: “I hide down in my corner/because I like my corner”; or those so greedy and adamant, they snatch a single-syllable with a second-syllable rhyme: “They might laugh at your tattoos/When they do, get new ones in completely garish hues.” Welcome to a fallen world: new coda, new rules, same rhyme schemes.
Darnielle’s writing is as exquisite as ever, but perhaps more than ever it also feels relaxed, confident in more than just its audaciousness. The synth sound on ‘Until I Am Whole’ is the most modish pop convention I can remember The Mountain Goats employing and its four line chorus, “I think I’ll stay here/Til I feel whole again/Don’t know where/Don’t know when” peaks Darnielle’s tendency towards unadorned and accessible lyrics. He’s become like those circuit comedians – Simon Munnery for example – who have fostered so much mutual trust that they no longer need to pester their audiences for laughter. Plenty left to say, little left to prove.
And boy is he worth hearing. As the characters of Transcendental Youth struggle for legacy and import against their own temporality, the music – and the listener – are complicit in their momentum and gravitas. It’s uplifting and at times exhilarating. But for the same reasons it’s also tragic. The characters want to leave their mark. “Be the little mark on something maybe” is the hope of ‘Harlem Roulette’, “By the time you hear this we’ll be gone” so sing for us, Darnielle pleads on the title track, nestled amongst the inevitable – and well placed – references to Keats’s ‘Bright Star’. But here Darnielle looks over his shoulder and responsibility catches up with him like the taxman: “Father long-gone, but we bare his mark.”
Is any living musician better than John Darnielle at expressing what it means to be human and alive? To be “a mass of blood and foam”, as he put it four years and three albums ago on Heretic Pride? Perhaps not. But Darnielle’s generation is the last for whom youth – even in the abstract – could be a great amoral time, for whom leaving a mark is a pulsing, desperate aim instead of a furtive, guilty fear. To transcend is to go beyond, which begs the same question about youth as it does about the Mountain Goats’ evolving legacy: what next?