Wednesday, June 6, 2018

CD Odyssey Disc 1145: The Mountain Goats

Apologies for my extended absence, gentle readers. I have been on holiday and have had less qualifying listening time than normal. See Rule #4 in the sidebar for what qualifies.

I have bought a fair bit of music lately – too much to quickly discuss in fact – but here are the highlights:
  • “Small Believer” – an intimately beautiful indie folk record from Anna Tivel from 2017.
  • Thunderpussy – the 2018 eponymous debut from a hard rockin’ all woman band I expect to hear a lot more from in future.
  • “When I Said I Wanted To Be Your Dog” – 2004 debut album from Swedish indie pop singer Jens Lekman.
More about these amazing albums - and the other seven, which are also good - when I roll them.

Disc 1145 is… Transcendental Youth
Artist: The Mountain Goats

Year of Release: 2012

What’s up with the Cover? It looks like these transcendental youths are burning a lot of oil. They should get that checked, because you never know when you’re going to run into a bunch of floating demon faces on your way to a pool day in Nirvana…oops, too late.

How I Came To Know It: This was just me drilling through the Mountain Goats back catalogue after I realized how much I liked them.

How It Stacks Up:  I rank “Transcendental Youth” fifth out of my eight Mountain Goats albums. So solid, but not the star of the show.

Ratings: 3 stars

Few artists do depression like John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats – he knows how to push his characters down into the depths of self-examination and then welcomes the listener to learn from their mistakes. His characters are often tragic, but rarely are they only tragic. Instead they have a core of nobility or at the very least endurance, that gilds the edges of their failure.

Darnielle has explored a lot of his own troubled youth in this way, and is so gifted a songwriter that if he were to stray to fiction the journey would be so seamless as to not matter. Whether fiction or biography or both, “Transcendental Youth” sees Darnielle turning his eye to the addicted and unemployed underclass of people living in and around Seattle.

The album has a lot of inner strength, but it isn’t founded in a “do the right thing” mentality nor even a “shape up!” mentality. Instead, it explores why people in dire straits have self-destructive qualities that to the rest of us don’t make any sense. The album begins with “Amy aka Gladiator 1”:

“Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive
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, just stay alive.

“Play with matches if you think you need to play with matches
Seek out the hidden places where the fire burns hot and bright
Find where the heat's unbearable and stay there if you have to
Don't hurt anybody on your way up to the light
And stay alive. Just stay alive”

In short – some people hurt themselves just to prove they’re still alive. Darnielle lays down his theme early with these lines – this album is for those people. They make a lot of bad choices, but he’s here to explore them, not judge whether it all makes any sense.

“Transcendental Youth” is a record for the invisible and the forgotten, and Darnielle sings their stories with a matter-of-fact delivery that makes it feel even more tragic. As he notes on “Harlem Roulette”:

“The loneliest people in the whole wide world
Are the ones you’re never going to see again.”

It’s an anthem for everyone you pass on the street and don’t even notice. The record is full of unclean apartments, drugs, vomit and petty crime. Don’t expect a record filled with party music, unless you are having very depressing parties; the kind where everyone ends up either in prison or in the hospital.

Darnielle is a master at phrasing and it aids in all this morose storytelling. He keeps the arrangements simple for the most part. The reverb on the piano is appropriately stark and haunting, and the horn section is used to lay down minor notes that paint around the edges of all that misery.

It works, although there are times when the album goes too far. Not with the misery – that’s to be expected – but with all those jazz notes. They suck some of the life out of the melodies and make songs that should strike straight from the heart come at you at a more oblique angle, dulled and diffuse. I don’t mind you depressing me, John, just lay off the jazz.

I also found the obscure and irrelevant song titles annoying, like modern poetry where the title of the poem helps you ‘get it’. The songs are clever enough on their own without resorting to this. Yes, we get that the person burning themselves on “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” in the first track is a type of “spent gladiator.” I just don’t think layering one more metaphor adds more meaning to the song at the end of the day, and it just confused me later trying to sort out the songs.

Despite this annoyance, the record still succeeds with Darnielle’s songwriting brilliance and its ability to put you into the mindset of people that too often we walk by every day without a second glance.

Best tracks: Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1, Lakeside View Apartments Suite, Harlem Roulette, Until I Am Whole, Spent Gladiator 2

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