Transcendental Youth (2012, Merge Records) is one of my favorite albums evar. How can I say that about an album that’s only five months old? Let me elaborate over the course of the next several thousand words.
The album is an impressive achievement for the Little Band That Could out of
Claremont Ames Durham, and the hypey acclaim it has received is totally warranted. I’m not just saying that because I like-like the Mountain Goats—which in full disclosure: I do like-like them, and please ask the Goats to check yes no or maybe on whether they like-like me too—but because the album is musically innovative for them and lyrically masterful in true Mountain Goats form. It shows that this musical project, now old enough to order a martini, is still growing and developing. Every time that the Goats go into the studio they do something big and new and different, and this album is no exception to that rule1.
I’m spending this week talking about Transcendental Youth track-by-track. You can see the other posts by going to the bottom of this post and clicking on things.
AMY AKA SPENT GLADIATOR 1
As an album opener I think this song does a damn fine job. In all of my dreams, John Darnielle is strutting onto a stage gleefully and Peter Hughes is picking up his bass and grinning at an ecstatic audience in a bar somewhere in Minnesota in March (which is inarguably the worst month2 to be anywhere, especially Minnesota), an oasis of light in a bleak and desolate late-winter landscape, and the crowd quiets down for just a moment until the CLICKCLICK CLICKCLICK CLICKCLICK CLICKCLICK comes in from Jon Wurster and every person in the room looses their marbles. The energy of the song is just palpable, it’s ripe, and man if listening to this song doesn’t make you want to scream then you need to ask yourself: “what’s wrong with meeeeee?”
In this song, JD pretty much lays out the same philosophy that he’d been spouting in interviews for the few years prior to the release of this album, which is: whatever you do to make yourself happy is okay, as long as you’re not hurting other people, or at least as long as you don’t try to hurt other people. He told Rolling Stone magazine in August 2012 that “All the self-destructive stuff I did to myself when I was younger was vital,” alluding to his former drug use and general wildness. “I did it to stay alive. So therefore it was all good. The only time it’s not good is when it hurts anybody else. Short of that, anything you do to make yourself OK, is OK.” Okay okay okay John, you got me, reel me in bro. I’m all about that—honestly we put so much judgment on ourselves and for what? How many of us join with the rest of society to balk at the truths of mental health and the whole “mental illness” issue? That people who see therapists are CRAZY and CRAZY = UNLOVABLE, and if we don’t seem perfect perfect perfect all the time then it’s embarrassing, we should be embarrassed, and no one is allowed to have problems or be imperfect! No one is allowed to be anything but “good,” now may I direct you to exhibit A:
INT: GROCERY STORE IN ANYWHERE, USA
Person 2! Hey! Hi! How are you!?
PERSON 2 [INTERNALLY]:
I’m only here because I went into the cabinet and
the guy on the Lucky Charms box made me cry so I
came to the store to buy some Cap’n Crunch because
Cap’n seems like a much more loving guy who could
probably get real down on some platonic cuddling
and I bet his beard would mop up my tears real
well and his strong sailor arms could hold me
nice and firm when the shakes get bad.
PERSON 2 [EXTERNALLY]:
I’m good, I’m good! How are you!? It’s been so long!
PERSON 1 [INTERNALLY]:
Yes it’s been so long because I'm pretending not to
care about you as a defense mechanism when really
I’m just hurt and upset that you don’t make more of
an effort to have a friendship with me and I'm guessing
you don't make an effort because I'm not worth loving, I mean
that's probably why my dad doesn't make an effort
right ??? so to reiterate I am being intentionally aloof
as a DEFENSE MECHANISM, ON PURPOSE because then I AM IN CONTROL
of the fact that our friendship is so tenuous.
PERSON 1 [EXTERNALLY]:
Yeah! Hah. Well, see you later!
PERSON 2 [EXTERNALLY]:
Yeah! Bye bye now.
PERSON 1 & PERSON2 [INTERNALLY; HARMONIZED AT A MAJOR 2ND]:
Now of course not everyone is a fucked up thing, but anyone who doesn’t have some level of “issues” is a mythical creature probably. Whether or not you need therapy is a matter of personal preference and, hey, no sweat either way. What I’m saying is that if we were all a little more comfortable with honesty and intimacy, and we all did every stupid thing that made us (and each other) feel alive, I think we’d all grin a bit more, and what a world that would be.
This song is also sort of about Amy Winehouse, though JD did write it after Amy Winehouse died. He told Time Magazine in September 2012: “When Amy Winehouse died, I wrote the first ‘Spent Gladiator’. That’s what people don’t say when drug addicts die—that they are mentally ill, that it is a disease. I felt really sad and I thought about all the other Amy Winehouses in the world who aren’t famous, whose deaths go uncelebrated.” So I guess in certain technical senses, yes it is about Amy Winehouse, but it’s more about Amy as a concept, right?
LAKESIDE VIEW APARTMENTS SUITE
This is the first piano song we get on the album. In general, Transcendental Youth relies heavily on piano, which is awesome because as much as I love JD’s “unique” guitar style, we all know that when he whips out the grand piano that things are definitely getting especially real, and, yeah. Things get pretty real3 in this song.
The first stanza alone has several opportunities for me to pause to sit with my mouth agape in awe: “downtown north past the airport / a dream in switchgrass and concrete / three gray floors of smoky windows / facing the street”. Ladies and gentlemen, that is how you set a scene. Extrapolating from interview data and Google Maps, this stanza is placing us in north Portland (Oregon) in maybe the Kenton or East Columbia neighborhoods (?). As far as I can tell, this song is about some people, maybe a drug dealer or two, who are STAYING ALIVE despite some legit maladies, all backdropped to the bleak landscape of north Portland (it’s not difficult to make north Portland hella bleak tbh).
I think the most telling line in the song is “days like dominoes / all in a line”. The solitude of this song is almost panicky in nature (there’s energy bubbling just beneath the surface of JD’s vocals)—frenetic, even. Frenetic solitude is a very vivid emotional state that John has written extensively on (see: Get Lonely, All Hail West Texas—the entire Goats discog actually) but I think he captures it here so adeptly, with a haunting quality not seen (arguably) since “Lovecraft In Brooklyn”. There’s a beginning-and-end relationship between the dominoes line and the line three stanzas later, “emerge transformed / in a million years / from days like these”, the intermediate words describing an amalgam of moments passing in flashes of awareness.
The most overt part of the song is the powerful #tenuouslyfe vibe that it injects into your chest, and that’s certainly the take-away point of the song, but what I find most interesting about “Lakeside View” is the seemingly unintentional shout to Elliott Smith. We know that JD is not above explicit calls to other artists: he’s quoted a range of pieces, from the Cheers theme song (“Autoclave”) to Biggie (“Fall of the Star High School Running Back”) and…actually, let’s elaborate briefly on Biggie. Something about JD’s voice takes away the swagger of rap lyrics to reveal the dark véracité that lays just beneath the surface of hip-hop (see: JD covering “Ignition (Remix)” by R. Kelly). Note also: the little bit of dealer lingo in this song with the line “lakeside view for my whole crew”. The way JD spits out the word “crew” makes it such an angry and controlling and insidious word, it just sears you like a rugburn. JD has the perfect voice for rap, and he would/could/should make millions in the rap game, and to be perfectly fair, if the lyrical content from his career as a folk-rock/whatever musician is any kind of indication, he would probably have his own wing in the rap game museum up in rap heaven right between RZA and Q-Tip.
Back to Elliott Smith.
J. Darnielle sings in “Lakeside View Apartments Suite”:
And just before I leave
I throw up in the sink
One whole life recorded
In disappearing ink
Elliott Smith sang in “A Fond Farewell”:
Veins full of disappearing ink
Vomiting in the kitchen sink
Darnielle claimed on twitter that the parallel was unconscious, and that he is not familiar enough with Elliott Smith’s music to make such a subtle allusion. It’s interesting nonetheless, especially considering that Smith and Darnielle had very similar Portland experiences (paraphrasing Darnielle there) and the thematic parallels between the lyrical content of “Lakeside View” and “A Fond Farewell” (which is about heroin addiction and deals mostly with feelings of powerlessness). Smith’s song also includes the mantra “this is not my life / it’s just a fond farewell to a friend” which is eerie for a number of reasons and partners very well with the mentality of the main character in this song.
CRY FOR JUDAS
In a January 2012 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, JD called Transcendental Youth “The Satan Record”, referencing the thematic presence of Satanism as a coping mechanism (“make up magic spells / we wear them like protective shells” from “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”) and the not-so-subtle LaVeyan undertones to the whole “do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive” mantra.
“Cry For Judas” is the first song that blatantly references Satan. Darnielle gleefully instructs us to “unfurl the black velvet altercloth / draw the white chalk baphoment” and reminds us that if you “mistreat your altar boys long enough” that “this is what you get”. There are some overt points being made here, but looking deeper I think this is a song about someone who empathizes with Judas Iscariot’s point of view and is angry that Judas had to be killed. Perhaps this person is a contrarian, or maybe their moral compass rests slightly askew, or perhaps this person has overwhelming empathy for the detested among us. Maybe they are sympathizing with Judas for more adolescent reasons, like, if the majority of people believe something (e.g. “Judas was evil”) and you are a special snowflake so unlike the majority of people, then the majority of people must be wrong. Anyone who has been a teenager has used this logic.
Anyway, this person is sympathizing with Judas and is like “well hey, Judas and I are both fucked up and no one ever asked Judas what was going through his head, maybe he was just trying to make a buck, and dang, he def had some existential angst if he really thought there would be no consequences for sending The Messiah to his death, it really must have been a tough time to be Judas, I feel for the guy”. I’m very cautious about ever saying “I think this song means…” especially about any Goats song, because as soon as you say “it’s about being happy because your father stopped drinking and you had an epiphany!” you are guaranteed to read an interview or listen to a bootleg where JD says “this song is about a dog who is upset because his owner bought Pedigree instead of Alpo and the dog really likes Alpo”. Some of that is John being “funny” but some of it is the fact that John can write a song about anything and he writes songs about everything and he values the small struggles and the parallelism in everything. So take my interpretation with a grain of salt because it’s most likely wrong, and this song might very well be about dog food brands.
That said, I think the lyrics bode well for my interpretation being at least partially true, and the upbeat nature of the song is in keeping with JD’s affinity for putting soul-crushingly depressing lyrics in the envelope of a dance-y beat and a major-key progression (see: “Dance Music,” “Autoclave,” “Half Dead,” and others). A lot of these lyrics punch pretty hard. Take the opening line, “some things you do just to see / how bad they make you feel” (like, perhaps, ratting out your friend Jesus of Nazareth to the feds?), which is answered two lines later with “but I am just a broken machine / and I do things that I don’t really mean”. Wow. I mean, this is an A+ depiction of mental “illness” in my book. If you’ve never been mentally ill (pausing to acknowledge the argument that the term “mentally ill” is a misnomer) and you’ve ever wondered what it’s like: you feel like a broken machine whose body and short-term brain and long-term brain are like three people with complicated sexual histories together and they’re having a very passive-aggressive argument at a dinner party and it’s making everyone else in the room uncomfortable and some other part of you is just meeting everyone’s fraught stares and mouthing “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry.” But even that is a very important stage of mental illness that you reach after a significant amount of practice in self-awareness. Before that, and even often after that, you just do things you don’t really mean that make you feel bad and you have no idea why you feel bad. It goes on and on.
And that’s what the song is really about, isn’t it? It’s hyper-self-aware and it’s expressing that particular iteration of depression where you’re like, “okay, if I just do a 1000-piece puzzle then I have a goal-oriented task and I won’t kill myself, and by the time I’m done it will be time for bed and I can go to sleep and say that I’ve lived another day.” So you do things that you don’t really mean and you test the waters and eat bullets just to keep yourself in check and STAY ALIVE. This song is about STAYING ALIVE and riding out the bad things and owning your dysfunction. “Sad and angry / can’t learn how to behave / still won’t know how / in the darkness of the grave”.
I would like to take a moment now for us to appreciate Peter Hughes’ stellar bass playing. Hughes is one of the most seaworthy bass players on the scene—he’s versatile and does a really good job of composing interesting bass parts that don’t get in the way of the guitar or vocals. He shines on this song in particular. Just listen to the song and think about the bass, the beautiful, dancing, bass. I like to imagine Peter Hughes (the sentence could end right there, really) dancing around the studio recording this with a smile on his face—it’s just so fun and simple.
I’d like to take another moment to appreciate Matthew E. White’s horn arrangements for this album. This song really pushes those horns in the listener’s face: HERE WE ARE, HERE ARE SOME MAJOR CHORDS! It’s like an unexpected hug from a friend. This album would be awesome without the horns of course, but the horns bump it firmly into the “unmatchable masterpiece” tier imho.
So between the amazing bass, the lyrics, the upbeat rhythm, Peter Hughes dancing in a recording studio in Durham, and the swelling horns section, this song is utterly amazing and if you don’t have a smile plastered on your face after listening through it for the third time on repeat (I mean, or however long it takes you to get over the initial shock of its UTTER PERFECTION) then there is little hope for you.
Side note: is the music video for “Cry For Judas” okay? Does it go too far? Is Jon Wurster a playah in this video? Is child molestation happening? Is child abuse happening? Is minor-on-minor domestic abuse the same as adult-on-adult domestic abuse? At what age are human beings capable of making decisions about their lives and being responsible for them? Is sex-ed satisfactory in America? Why do parents hate talking to their kids about sex? What’s JD’s role in this video? Why does Peter Hughes kill John Darnielle? Why doesn’t Peter Hughes have an Oscar for his acting in the scene after he kills John Darnielle? Why isn’t there an Oscar nomination category for corpse acting (which John Darnielle would clearly win)? What did John Darnielle ever do to Peter Hughes? No but really, what is going on with Jon Wurster in this music video?? Do you also want Peter Hughes to be your father? Why is Peter Hughes hugging his wife in the car? What the hell is happening!?!? We report, you decide.
1. (Warning: fanspeak ahead.) I’m willing to hear arguments on the notion that 2011’s All Eternals Deck is an exception to this rule; also note use of word “studio” and not “studio apartment equipped with a Panasonic RX-FT500”. I’m not hearing debates on innovation in the boombox years, it doesn’t need to happen. There’s no reason we shouldn’t already be on the same page there.
2. It’s Spring! Spring is finally here oh my GOD, OH MY GOD! OH MY—NO. NO. WHY IS IT SNOWING. IT’S BEEN SNOWING FOR DAYS. I THINK IT’S 50 DEGREES OUT TODAY, OR MAYBE THAT SAYS 30, I HAVEN’T BEEN ABLE TO SEE STRAIGHT FOR A WEEK, HAVE I HAD THIS SINUS INFECTION FOR THREE MONTHS? IS IT JUNE AND AM I LOSING IT? HAVE I ALREADY LOST IT?
3. And I’m picturing an anime JD whipping out a grand piano from his jean pocket and wielding as a weapon against the forces of the partially- and mostly-real.
Part 1 – “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1”, “Lakeside View Apartments Suite”, “Cry For Judas”
Part 2 – “Harlem Roulette”, “White Cedar”, “Until I Am Whole”
Part 3 – “Night Light”, “The Diaz Brothers”, “Counterfeit Florida Plates”
Part 4 – “In Memory of Satan”
Part 5 – “Spent Gladiator 2”, “Transcendental Youth”