John Darnielle, singer songwriter of The Mountain Goats is first and foremost a poet. If you look it up (no reason why you would) you learn that a mountain goat (native to North America) is not a true goat but more like a goat-antelope. Darnielle, like his moniker is a hybrid, more of a poet-singer (his blog of poems is entitled Last Plane to Jakarta).
This half sung, half spoken style is an acquired taste. Like Billy Bragg or the geographically closer Smog, The Mountain Goats are spoken word committed to song. In this new album Transcendental Youth, Darnielle overstuffs the meter, using words that don’t quite scan to give you a nudge, to sit up and listen. His stories move from the sadly comic ‘woke up all flat with a cellphone stuck to the side of my face’ (Memory of Satan) to the unpalatable ‘just before I leave I throw up in the sink, one whole life recorded in disappearing ink’ (Lakeside View Apartment Suite). He has as much attack in his singing, distilling essence of Placebo’s Brian Molko to the Undertone’s Feargal Sharkey – often set to a jaunty romp sounding more celtic than American.
A newly acquired horn sound (a little bit Lambchop) helps soften the blow and tracks such as Night Light have a seam of warmness that feels like downtown after-hours driving. Until I Am Whole works the best, it’s tender and reflective but these moments are merely breathers between the angst.
Having reached the mid teens in studio albums, and given the title of his new offering, you’d think this was Darnielle acting out, hanging on to the darkness (he’s just become a father so maybe he’s digging deep to tap into the things that rile him for inspiration).
Originating in the 1990’s (the band is Darnielle with a selection of supporting musicians), the Mountain Goats produced resolutely lo-fi home recordings, releasing them on cassette and vinyl with their trademark hiss sticking two fingers up at polished pop music. In 2002 they signed to 4AD, which inevitably led to a smoother sound and two years later following the death of Darnielle’s stepfather, more personal songs came to the fore and they were called in to record a John Peel session. This current album is richer than earlier outings making use of differing instruments and sounds. Peter Hughes joins on bass and Jon Wurset on drums.
Although mostly domestic in context, these are still essentially protest songs. In White Cedar Darnielle spits ‘you can’t tell me what my spirit tells me isn’t true’. He uses the direct address, as if we were The Man and it’s a bitter pill to take. When he’s not chastising us, he moves to self-flagellation ‘I’m a broken machine’. If the Mountain Goats could expand on their warmer tracks, they’d learn that the listener is your friend (not your enemy).
Review by: Selina Ream
Transcendental Youth is released on Merge Records 2nd October 2012