Track-by-Track: Transcendental Youth by the Mountain Goats (Part 4)

When I decided to start writing this, I promised myself I wouldn’t let it turn into a 10,000-word essay about mental illness, but honestly I should have known better. You me and the whole world knew that mental illness was going to be the focus of all of this, because A) psych-talk is the funnel through which I process everything, B) mental illness is something that I want to talk about with everyone all the time, and C) media can be a powerful tool for self-examination (at least for me—I’ve said more insightful things about “22” by Taylor Swift than I’ve said in the lyrical content of any of my songs) and I think it’s always a good idea to stay up to date on where I’m “at” w/r/t mental health. Music is what I live or die by every day; I can name several seismic shifts in my life and the music I associate with those shifts. As I listened to this album and outlined my essays and wrote down my thoughts, I knew pretty quickly that it would be a way for me to address and reevaluate certain aspects of my Self.

Or whatever, I don’t know, *fart noise*.

This is my favorite song on all of Transcendental Youth, and dare I say it is in my top 10 favorite Mountain Goats songs ever1, so I have a lot to say about it.



From start to finish, from sea to shining holistic sea, I think this song is the strongest on Transcendental Youth. This song is distilled Goats, the Goats at their Goatiest. JD’s lyrics shine over a simple rhythm and piano melody with the horns acting as a swelling background arrangement that is easy to take for granted.

And really, the lyrics here are amazing. Let’s start with the first stanza: “got my paintbox out last night / stayed up late and wrecked this place / woke up on the floor again / cellphone stuck to the side of my face”. Society is still figuring out how to talk about technology in its creative works (note all the awkward use of cell phones in movies in the late aughts, or the awkward omission of cell phones from movies and TV in the same period), but this is a good example of a subtle yet not-overt inclusion. The second stanza continues: “dead space on the other end / perfect howl of emptiness / cast my gaze around the room / someone needs to clean up this mess.” JD is setting this song up to be Transcendental Youth’s “Absolute Lithops Effect”—a transformation, a realization, the flowering of a human from something that seems lifeless and obstinate. Well-studied Goats fans will be familiar with the scenario playing out in this song, a favorite scenario of Mr. Darnielle: this is a story about being in a place mentally where you have to spend a week or a month or a summer alone in solitude, maybe even not leaving your apartment for a while. You just stop and say, “okay, I’m doing this now I guess, a stupid thing I need to do to STAY ALIVE, and I’m doing it.” JD is fascinated by the circumstances that bring people to a place like this, and he himself has been in that place—he’s one of us.

I’ve been in this place before. A lot of people have. A lot of people are still in this place. Its a hallmark of the intersection between depression, anxiety, and immaturity. During that time you sort of slap a “DOWN FOR MAINTENANCE” sign on your forehead and your mind really sinks into these abysses with strange creatures and you’ve got like this flickering lamp in the darkness and once in a while something is illuminated and you grab it and start constructing this world that makes sense again, life slowly starts to take a shape. You have this infinity inside of you that can only begin to be unraveled by the freedom you allow your mind in those times of solitude, and it’s intoxicating. And that’s the time when you form these inextricable bonds with things like the smell of the carpet and that one Bob Dylan album and that one season of Doctor Who—because that was the only DVD you had so you just watched disc 1 on repeat until you find yourself reciting dialogue in your head, or maybe you’re at the supermarket a few years later and you hear “Shelter From The Storm” and your stomach drops and your heart gives out this burst of burning adrenaline and you kind of freeze right there in the pet food section and just stare into the middle distance as all the nothingness comes rushing back. Sometimes you come out of those times with a weird knowledge of college basketball that people are always slightly discomforted by when at Thanksgiving you launch into a long monologue about the 2003 NCAA Men’s Basketball Championship Game. A lot of times once you move on you have to abandon those things because it adds a kind of finality to it all to say to yourself that you’ll NEVER listen to Blood on the Tracks ever again and you can just put a period on that whole time period by throwing away your CD. However, in the midst of one of those periods you can only think how the only thing that’s going to get you through the next four minutes is that Dylan’s wailing. After a while though, that song becomes not quite enough and you work out the little intricacies in your head and you have this objective voice that tries to reel you back in to the surface of reality because the coping structures have been built in your head and the scaffolding has been taken down and now you can walk around aimlessly in this new space, scoping things out and figuring out how it is you’re supposed to live here.

But getting out of that initial phase of solitude is the hard part, right? Because it’s comfortable and it’s safe and it’s controlled. I mean a lot of times you know that what you’re doing is harmful or irresponsible but you just don’t know any other way. You have those moments when you’re calling your parents and you’re crying and asking for $100 so you can continue to live solely on Chinese delivery for another week, and the self-hatred inside of you just swells so much until they send it to you and you hang up you just sit there feeling sick but also wildly relieved. “Tape up the windows / call in a favor from an old friend.” You feel like such a suck on reality and society and your friends and family but you kind of push it to the self-hate background radiation and go back to smiling at the stack of delivery menus piling up on the bottom shelf of your coffee table. Sometimes you need that moment of saying “I need help, and how you can help me is by bringing me five orders of garlic naan from India Garden,” and you need to be okay with that, and you need to be okay with doing that while you also shut the whole world out (“tape up the windows”) and say to your friend “I promise you that sometime in the future I will be the best friend ever but right now I literally can’t think about socializing with another person without wanting to seppuku myself with this plastic spoon.” You have those moments and you feel like there’s no way out of this hole you’re digging (“locked up in myself / never gonna get free”), so you just keep digging and somehow you have dug through to the other side of the planet and you just go “oh, okay.”

Of course it has to go like that, and that’s so necessary but there’s a great deal of shame that comes with it, and there’s also this thought that keeps coming up like a dialogue between you and yourself, that’s like “well maybe we should stop” but Other You says “or…we could not stop” and you don’t argue and you just go back to wiggling around on the floor because you’re so damn restless you want to scream.

How does our narrator here? How is our narrator so complacent, so accepting of his circumstance, so resigned, so sad without self-destruction? IS our narrator self-destructive? These are the questions meant to stay with us, may even haunt us.

JD told the audience at An Evening of Awesome: “This is a song about making a contract with your solitude, that you want to hold it to later on, and you expect to be able to wag your finger and say ‘you said!’” And that’s what you gotta do. You really need to commit to doing every stupid thing that helps you STAY ALIVE, and in this song JD is offering up that you embrace a type of solitude, you embrace the loneliness and pain underneath your surface, and that you find an outlet that lets you grasp tightly onto it until you can release it into the ether. Perhaps you grasp onto Satanism, and you practice Satanism somewhat ironically, taking comfort in little more than the ritual and the mysticism of it—and it’s okay for you to do that because you are STAYING ALIVE and that’s all that matters.

This song is important because it’s validation—a reminder that it’s okay to STAY ALIVE however you know how. It’s okay to be solitary, it’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay, and even more than that, it’s kind of beautiful.


1. Approximately (in no particular order): Broom People, Maize Stalk Drinking Blood, Sax Rohmer #1, In Memory of Satan, Moon Over Goldsboro, Love Love Love, Color In Your Cheeks, Riches and Wonders, Spent Gladiator 2, The Bad Doctor. Sometimes one of these is substituted for Historiography.



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”

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Freelance human being.

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