Release date: October 2nd, 2012
It’s tough to explain The Mountain Goats to anyone that isn’t already into them. They’re sort of like the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles of bands. Incredibly difficult to explain to someone who doesn’t know anything about them yet BURNED INTO THE VERY SOUL of anyone lucky enough to have experienced them young enough.
The production on this, following the patten laid forth by several of John Darnielle’s last releases, is quite a lot shinier compared to his earlier work. This creates an entirely different Mountain Goats experience than one might be used to if you’ve been weaned exclusively on, say, the seminal “All Hail West Texas.”
Giving a ‘bad review’ to a Mountain Goats record is sort of like kicking a puppy in the testicles while wearing golf cleats, but “Transcendental Youth” exercises Darnielle’s more pop-punk sensibilities. This works for him but not as smoothly as he might perhaps think himself: by all means this next thing I’m about to say is an insult (given Ben Weasel’s recent assholery) but “Transcendental Youth” reminds me more than a little of Screeching Weasel’s 1996 album “Bark Like a Dog.” Here’s why: both albums draw hugely from a sense of lost youth without directly confronting it. Both albums are like a portrait of a person showing just the accoutrements – Darnielle (and Weasel, to a blunter extent) both understand loss and love and what the random song on the radio was that happened to color the mood just so. Darnielle paints nuanced imagery with a nostalgic brush, Weasel perhaps throws that paint directly at the wall, but if you stand back far enough they both largely stand for the same thing. To some, his pop-punk thing might be awesome. To me it sounds a little forced, but there’s a reason he’s on the stage and I’m behind the computer. It still sounds, well, good. It could sound great, though.
Yet the pop-punk exercise is only half of the album. “White Cedar” is the album’s biggest surprise: it’s 3/4′ers of an 80′s power ballad without the giant chorus and it sets the mood for the quite interesting middle-third of the album. It sounds like his older albums in that the songs could be played on just a guitar and still retain (if not more) of the emotional resonance that Darnielle most certainly carries with him; damn near waves it like a flag.
Random: I have here in my notes “The Diaz Brothers” doesn’t work at all and it doesn’t, at all. He might as well have covered the Sanford & Sons theme song. On a second listen I had to skip it. Sorry, dude. That was one plop of a song.
I hate to say it, but this isn’t a great Mountain Goats album. I’m a fan of Darnielle’s and I know what he can accomplish. It sucks giving a bad review to someone who’s work I really like but this is like a Mountain Goats album edited for TV, specifically TBS, it lacks bite and that, in all honesty, is what I’d come to expect from him. There are some great moments here – ”White Cedar” and “In Memory Of Satan” and “Spent Gladiator 2″ are brilliant, brilliant songs – but as a whole “Transcendental Youth” as an album highlights perhaps a poppier punkier side of, well, youth than I remember, at least.
This might be totally the right album for somebody. It might not, too. It has flashes of true brilliance but half the album is buried under a sheen I’m honestly having difficulty describing. Like I said before, it’s difficult to give a “bad” review to a Mountain Goats album, but “Transcendental Youth” is 2/3rds of a great album and 1/3rd of an entirely different one; perhaps a latter Mountain Goats pop-punk album. And that one third is fucking jarring when you’ve got tracks like (the last song) “Transcendental Youth” closing out the album. It’s sort of like seeing Mona Lisa on a skateboard. Magnificent and jarring at the same time.