Over the past few days I’ve been laying out a track-by-track breakdown of Transcendental Youth by the Mountain Goats (you can see other posts here). Up until now my attitude toward the album has been overwhelmingly positive, but you knew there had to come a time when even someone who signed a petition to have John Darnielle nominated as U.S. Poet Laureate (with “ups” and respect to Natasha Trethewey, obvs) would have to grapple with criticism and even, [sarcastic gasp], negative feelings about Mountain Goats songs. We come to those songs today, and they’re all in a row! How lovely!
Let’s get on with today’s words, there are 2300 of them so happy reading.
I think the one line that sums up this song best is from the first verse: “nerves strung so high / I am a mandolin1.” This song is incredibly tense; there’s this kind of light, nervous trilling on the drums the entire time, and a distorted bass line that keeps building building building until you’re like writhing with anticipation. Then this weird distorted totally un-Mountain-Goats-y synth rhythm comes in, and it’s sorta reminiscent of the distorted harmonica at the end of “The House That Dripped Blood” from 2002’s Tallahassee but it’s more curious and electro. For what it’s worth, it’s nice to hear the Goats experimenting, really, and I think this album is one of the most experimental in a long time2.
We have a very Big Thing happening here: our narrator mentions a girl named Jenny. According to Darnielle, this is the same Jenny that has appeared in a few Mountain Goats songs, namely as a part of the core cast for 2002’s concept album All Hail West Texas. It’s a matter of personal interpretation which songs on that album are about Jenny, or if the song “Jenny” is about Jenny or if it’s written from Jenny’s point of view, but the point is that some nonzero amount of Jenny is happening in both places, effectively placing the characters of this album and the characters in All Hail West Texas within one or so degrees of separation (!!!). Given the narrative of All Hail West Texas, this is an interesting connection to make. It can certainly be implied that AHWT and Transcendental Youth are similarly constructed, both of them comprised of storytelling-driven songs set in a particular place or region and revolving around a small group of people with lots of ills and only “a few stray hopes”. The parallels are certainly there, and bringing Jenny into this explicitly kind of solidifies it, don’t you think?
Though apparently, bringing Jenny into this wasn’t intentional. JD told Rolling Stone in January 2012: “She’s one of those disruptive characters, really through no fault of her own. I hadn’t planned on her reappearing but once I had an idea for the song’s sound, I just tried barking out some random lyrics […] so I’m just barking out this stuff and there she was again and I was just ‘Well, I’ll be goddamned.’” Still interesting, I don’t care, I firmly believe that somewhere deep down in JD’s beautiful brain he had intended all along to parallel this to All Hail West Texas.
So Jenny’s in Montana, she’s passing through, and she decides to call our narrator. That strikes sadness into the poor fellow, who seems to later find himself in a bit of a tangle with the law. That’s interpreting “room full of ambitious young policemen / everybody trying to make his mark / I was a red dot blinking on a screen then / and then the room went dark” from the second verse as literal, but even if it’s a paranoid delusion the tension is still infectious and palpable. I think no matter what this guy is chasing, he’s also being chased—by policemen, by memories (of Jenny?), by responsibility and obligation, by the visions in his head, et cetera. This speaker is very, very haunted, and Jenny’s call seems to have been somewhat of a trigger for him. “I think about Montana when I close my eyes” spells out a haunt to me (Montana = Jenny, or Jenny is associated with Montana, such as the narrator and Jenny went to Montana once, or used to dream about going to Montana, or used to live in Montana, and Jenny passed through and called like “Hey, I drove past our old apartment in Helena, I thought about you.”). That line being followed immediately by “possibly Jenny’s headed east” sets up a pattern of Jenny’s consistent association with spikes in tension (see: first verse, when “nerves strung so high / I am a mandolin” is followed immediately by “Jenny calls from Montana”).
I’d like to know more about this narrator’s story. I think the mood of the song is interesting, and the unrelieved tension that builds (and is never satisfied!?!?!?) leaves me wanting more more more, like I’m just waiting for the out-breath that never comes. I think even a screaming verse (see: last verse of “Lovecraft In Brooklyn” from Heretic Pride) would have acted as enough of a release to give this song what it needed. Listening to this song is like watching a .gif of a cat crouching and wagging its butt and flinching and getting ready to pounce, but it’s on a seamless loop and it doesn’t stop for 4 minutes. Listening to it long enough just makes you want to snap, and not going to lie I can’t listen to this song on its own because it makes me so agitated3. That said, well done on the part of the Goats for succeeding in giving the song the tension it needed to be interesting.
I want to put a period to my frustration with this song by acknowledging the phonetic beauty of the line “live like an outlaw / clutching gold coins in his claw.”
THE DIAZ BROTHERS
So this is the jumpy, jaunty kind of song we needed after “Night Light” got us all riled up (though I’m still not sure the Mission Accomplished banner should go up, this song is fine but I’m not so forgiving about my frustration with “Night Light”). You can hear the energy dripping from JD’s voice in this song, even if you aren’t familiar enough with the Goats know that when JD is particularly excited, he gets extra-nasaly and punctuative and shuddery. It’s just an infectiously exciting song, with a pretty strong rhythm and some upbeat major-chord piano going on.
From a January 2012 interview with JD:
“[The Diaz Brothers] is based on the drug-dealing siblings referenced briefly in the movie Scarface. ‘Frank tells Tony he has to respect the Diaz brothers, and Tony tells him to eff the Diaz Brothers, and by the time we do see them, they’re dead,’ said Darnielle. ‘I’m obsessed with people we never got to know but who we know about, because you have a sense of who they were and what became of them since they died, but they’re essentially blocking characters in this story we all know. And we’re all basically blocking characters in life, when you think about it.’”
Now, I’m not part of the crowd that believes this song is overtly about the aforementioned Diaz brothers, nor do I think it is, as JD said at The Mercy Lounge in Nashville on December 1, 2012, about “hallucinating people that are out to get you.” I think there’s truth to both of those things. I like to interpret it as the story of someone with a serious mental illness who internalizes the plot to Scarface and in their paranoid-delusional brain thinks “MERCY FOR THE DIAZ BROTHERS, THEY ARE TO BE RESPECTED” and then goes out and tracks down Al Pacino at the Seattle International Film Festival and murders him then steals away cackling into fugitivity with the frenetic conviction that they served justice!, and that the enemies of all things just and right will come after them now so they must be alert and vigilant, when really the only people actually chasing them are police doctors with guns full of klonopin needles.
I don’t think this song is all that interesting, to be honest, but it’s certainly fun and it’s awesome to dance and scream along to. It fits in with the album with no problem, but I think it shies away from saying anything too bold. It’s certainly created a distinct and interesting character, but I think it can be overshadowed by the monolithic other songs on the album. I think it just fails to be as interesting as it wants to be.
COUNTERFEIT FLORIDA PLATES
This is a pretty textbook-standard song from the point of view of someone with paranoid schizophrenia. Right off the bat, “steal some sunscreen / from the CVS / use too much / and make a great big mess” is indicative of the infirm grasp on reality that a schizophrenic would have. Just imagine you’re squeezing sunscreen onto your leg and you use half the bottle because it makes sense to you to use that much, that’s what you need, but then it turns out you only need to put it on your leg and now your leg is fluorescent white and you have sunscreen smears all over your body and clothes and you just don’t know what to do so you put the bottle down and walk away and you “wait where shadows mask or hide [your] scent” so that your “so-called friends” who are “working for the government” can’t find you. When you’ve got schizophrenia, this is what happens in your head. There is a fundamental disconnect between you and reality. It’s not necessarily always as in “A Beautiful Mind” (sometimes it is!) where there are physically embodied voices speaking to you, and sometimes you don’t even have auditory hallucinations (sometimes you do!). Schizophrenia can be like #thatmomentwhen you recall a cripplingly embarrassing thing you said or did and you just kind of think about it and cringe and your internal monologue to yourself is “aghhh, you’re so stupid.” Only, schizophrenic people hear that about a lot more than just cripplingly embarrassing moments. They have an internal monologue when their friend checks their phone for texts that their friend is sending secret messages to the CIA and the CIA is going to come get you and take you away because you have special knowledge or because of something or other—but you’re going to be taken away, and now you can’t trust that friend. It’s not so much hearing a voice that belongs to a person (though it sometimes is!!!), as it is receiving in your head a very clear and articulate message that is explicitly speaking into your inner ear (i.e., your head telling you “Ack, I am an idiot” as opposed to just getting the feeling of being embarrassed).
“Dig through the trash / sleep on the grates / and watch for the cars / with the counterfeit Florida plates” sets up the notion that our narrator is perhaps homeless and/or sleeping on the street, unable to take care of himself—certainly not unheard of w/ schizophrenia. Perhaps the narrator believes that buying his own food will leave a trail that his enemies can use to track him down. Perhaps he thinks that the food in the store is loaded with chemicals from the government to control his mind. Perhaps food just tastes “funny” and the narrator is on a quest to find the food that is okay (“hmm alright so the safe food is probably in the dumpster at NW 63rd and 28th Ave NW, and I just need to dig around until I find the food that’s OKAY”). With paranoid schizophrenia, the possibilities are endless and endlessly fascinating.
Then there’s the great lines “it seems like everyone’s cut me free / and left me to the tender cares / of my faceless enemy,” and “wait for the fog to catch up with me / so I can at least feel numb,” which for me sum up the mindset of a paranoid-delusional person pretty well. I’m absolutely terrified of schizophrenia and of developing it, so this song kind of looms over me and makes me think a lot. I’m not sure why I’m afraid of developing schizophrenia, but I think it has to do with not being able to trust my perception of reality and losing control over my Self. See: my words about “White Cedar” for more info.
Overall, though, this song is kind of…boring? I really hate to say that, and I honestly can’t place any solid criticisms of it because it’s an awesome song. Maybe because my favorite song on the album comes next, this song just feels kind of like a waiting room. It’s sonically interesting, yes, and the narrator is A-1 prime awesome/interesting, but I find myself zoning out during this song quite frequently. I think it just goes on a little too long to hold my attention, which is unfortunate really, because I do think it’s a great song.
2. Warning: fanspeak ahead. I mean the early boombox days were severely experimental (Casio recordings) but since All Hail West Texas, the Goats have been a little less testy in the waters—they’ve had a more-or-less consistent sound. Don’t get me wrong, I like the sound they fleshed out with Tallahassee, and I can get behind w/ JD’s belief that The Sunset Tree was the first “real” Mountain Goats album. Every album since Tallahassee has been part of a pretty logical and consistent progression (We Shall Be Healed excluded), and I think the biggest jump so far has been between All Eternals Deck (2011) and Transcendental Youth, though I accept arguments re: Get Lonely although I think that’s more of an outlier. I think Heretic Pride is another candidate for “outlier” because if an average album is a novel, Heretic Pride is a not a novel: it has a very narrow focus IMO, which is not a diss at all, not in the least. I think because a lot of the songs sound similar (“Sax Rohmer #1”, “Autoclave”, “Craters on the Moon”, “How to Embrace a Swamp Creature”) it makes the album feel less like a novel and more like a mutant David Foster Wallace sentence (not unlike this paragraph).
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”