Track-by-Track: Transcendental Youth by the Mountain Goats (Part 5)

So, you may notice that I was supposed to post this on Friday but that I am posting it on Monday, and you may be thinking to yourself “Why? Why is this happening? What is going on?” I would reply that, first of all, those are not very good questions to be asking. Don’t you have better questions to be asking? Like, “is Dick Cheney a war criminal?” or “to what extent is America responsible for the radicalization of Middle Eastern muslim extremists?” or “is the Big 10 Network really worth $15/month?” Truth is, I had the appropriate section ready to go for Friday, but I was just unhappy with it, so I went back to my .doc and did some editing and added some water and sunlight and tender mercy to my words and insights and got them where I wanted. Now they’re here for you, dear reader, and for me, because really I did this for me, but writing is never an entirely solitary thing so on the deepest level this is for you.




By this point in the album, if I’m listening (figuratively) cover-to-cover, I’m pretty emotionally spent ( 😉 ). I’ve been on a journey to the high highs and low lows of this transcendental world, and I’m vulnerable. I’m ready to hear the moral. I’m ready for my “Love Love Love” moment. By the time I get through “In Memory of Satan” I’m at the end of my rope clinging to a single thread watching the fibers pull apart above my fingers. Listening to “Spent Gladiator 2” is like watching the thread finally pull itself apart, and I’m watching in slow motion as I resign myself to the fact that I’m plunging to my death, yet unbeknownst to me I’m only a foot off the ground. I drop that those 12 inches and my heart stops and I just kind of stand there letting the pee run down my leg as I just mentally process my vitality and put myself back together and try to decide whether or not to cry.

“Spent Gladiator 2” is one of those songs that gets into my bones and synchronizes with my heartbeat, and it kind of catches me off-guard with its crisp imagery and vocal articulation (that acts as a unique instrument of its own1). The predictable rhythm is used very carefully to achieve the comforting effect the lyrics are going for, emphasized by John’s staccato vocal delivery. The lyrics give us some very nice vignettes of people STAYING ALIVE—the “spent gladiator crawling in the Coloseum dust,” “the mouse in the forgotten grain / way up on the top shelf,” “the nagging flash of insight / you’re always desperate to avoid”—people doing whatever it takes to not just STAY ALIVE and live the only way they know how, people who have “the virtue of being able to take a hit,” as JD put it to the audience in Nashville on December 1, 2012. JD’s voice remains calm and slightly detached the entire time, as if his mind is reciting a very important mantra to himself. The stoicism in John’s voice finally falters with a light quiver as he tells us about “that board game with the sliders,” but he quickly returns to his recitation and goes on to finish out the song with a small sizzle at the tip of his tongue.

This song is kind of the end-credits montage for the album, the omniscient voice inside the minds of our album’s characters, describing the multitude ways they are STAYING ALIVE through thick and thin. The narrator of “White Cedar,” resigning himself to his hospital bed and accepting his fate, the narrator of “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” who has to walk around bearing the weight of the growing distance between his mind and his body, the narrator of “Cry For Judas” who is just a broken machine, the narrators of “Night Light” and “The Diaz Brothers” and “Counterfeit Florida Plates” who are running running running and not stopping long enough to contemplate what is really chasing them. Those people are counting all the people they can trust and picturing in vivid sharpness the clock that ticks in Dresden with no one alive to witness it except a few Germans and Kurt Vonnegut picking through the piles of silent debris, and they are channeling the clock’s stoic attention to its duty to keep going.

This song isn’t necessarily JD telling us to STAY ALIVE. Much more than this is a bit of advice, this song is meant to act as that omniscient voice for all of us. It’s meant to give us a mantra, a hypnotic thing to play in our heads to snap us back to reality, to STAYING ALIVE. This makes it perhaps the eeriest song on the album, acting as somewhat of a sister-song to “Love Love Love” from 2005’s haunting masterpiece The Sunset Tree: a nagging flash of insight meant to flare up in the darkest of moments. I kind of like this interpretation for the song, because I like the idea of the characters in this album sort of closing their eyes once in a while and being connected by this same hypnotic mantra. And I like that this is what the song means to me.


Lots of people on forums and around watercoolers interpret this song as being about a young couple who experience a winter of solitude together. It’s a sort of sister song to “Dinu Lipatti’s Bones” from The Sunset Tree in this way, but also to “In Memory of Satan” from this very album.

But it’s hard to put an interpretation to this song—it’s vague, the information comes in flashes of moments and brief details strung together to form a loose picture of instability and maladjustment (“try to explain ourselves / babble on and on”). Yet, the people here seem happy. Resigned. Confident. In love. Are they? The “this song is about a couple” interpretation makes sense with the trend of Goats subject matter, but they vague “we” in this song could even be interpreted a bit more broadly. If anything, I think this song could be from the perspective from the sole thrivers of our album’s cast of characters. The narrators here seem to be dabbling in mysticism (Satanism?), they sing songs fearlessly, they’re a bit outcast, they’ve got some seasonal affective disorder, are drugs involved?, they want to get out of their circumstance—and you know what? They do. They STAY ALIVE, maybe go a little bit insane inside of each other, but they make it. The song ends on a true escape, “by the time you receive this we’ll be gone / sing, sing high while the fire climbs / sing one for the old times”. Where did they go? Are they truly physically gone or have they just receded so far inside themselves they have found a silent escape into the darkness of the mind? Did these people kill themselves? Did they move to west Texas and settle down in Denton!?!?

That’s the beauty of this song—it’s open ended, there’s so much to interpret and it leaves the album in a kind of wistful limbo, which is in step with the open-ended nature of most Goats album-closers2. I guess JD is saying that this doesn’t end, this isn’t a complete story, this is but a glimpse into the nameless dark that our characters exist in and there’s just endless more to be said. He doesn’t want us to have finality because there is none to be had. Mental illness, life, existence—it goes on and when you die the world ends (your album ends), because your perception of the world ends, which is basically the same thing. The best thing that you can do is go out having done every stupid thing to make you feel alive, and go out with shameless dedication to that quest.


1. Take a listen to the song and pay attention to the phonetics as if JD’s voice is a wonderful instrument and you don’t understand the words; the use of stops and assonance is very pretty.

2. I think this one most mirrors what the tone of “Absolute Lithops Effect” does for 2002’s All Hail West Texas, though I know that’s a controversial statement and NO I AM NOT grossly misinterpreting the song; think about it.


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.

3 thoughts on “Track-by-Track: Transcendental Youth by the Mountain Goats (Part 5)”

  1. As someone working on this whole STAYING ALIVE thing in all of its ugliness, your words mean a lot to me. I’ve been trying for so long to be what other people want me to be, and it isn’t sustainable. Seeing it in print sort of crystallized it for me, that sometimes you need to just let yourself be broken, stop denying it to yourself, and stop turning your back on the things you need to do to STAY ALIVE, even if they aren’t pretty or socially acceptable. I’m just now realizing what I need to do to fight for my survival, and hearing you talk so eloquently about your experiences made me feel a little less alone, a little more solid. It means more to me than I can really express, and I just want to thank you.

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