The Mountain Goats’ newest album, “Transcendental Youth,” doesn’t come off as a grand experiment. Every song is pretty much what you would expect: minimally produced, narrative-heavy and decorated by John Darnielle’s flowery lyrics. But even after 21 years and 13 albums, “Transcendental Youth” doesn’t feel stale or sluggish. It is simply too lively
to rub you the wrong way.
The song “Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1” delivers some delightful sincerity right out of the gate. The song starts with a big smile and a clicking tambourine, and before long, Darnielle’s starry-eyed words have picked up right where they left off in the last album: “People might laugh at your tattoos/ When they do get new ones in completely garish hues.”
For every upbeat Mountain Goats action, however, there must be an equal and opposite reaction. Cue track number two, “Lakeside View Apartments Suite.” Darnielle’s gloomy piano chords carry each verse without a sophisticated rhythm or chord progression, leaving room for the lyrics to paint the image of a nostalgic look back at a used-to-be hometown.
“Transcendental Youth” does hit a rough patch with three negligible songs in the middle of the album. The shortcomings of “Night Light,” for example, can be traced to its percussion line. Darnielle tiptoes on his snare drum for almost all four minutes, depriving the song of any release. The song is motionless, and it takes a few effortful listens to even recall how it sounds.
The payoff finally comes with “The Diaz Brothers.” This song, like so many indie-folk rockers before it, writes its own history: You can’t resist contagious, energized piano hooks. You scream right along with Darnielle’s exhilarating vocals; you repeat it dozens of times. But after a while, you get over it and chuck the song in the occasional in-car-rock-out pile.
“Counterfeit Florida Plates” and “In Memory of Satan,” two mid-tempo numbers, help wind down the final third of the album into its eventual title track closing song. Darnielle comes full circle with more romantic youthfulness: “Try to explain ourselves/Babble on and on/ By the time you receive this, we’ll be gone.”
The Mountain Goats have done it again. While it isn’t groundbreaking, “Transcendental Youth” is still sincere, infectious and moving, and that makes it worth a listen. John Darnielle is an important artist, and it feels to good to know he is still here.
A version of this article appeared in the Wednesday Oct. 3 print edition. Jason Boxer is a contributing writer. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.