When I wrote about The Mountain Goat’s 1994 lo-fi release Sweden, the production values (or complete lack of) stood out immediately, but they rarely over powered the songs and the song writing. But in the years since, The Mountain Goats have only grown in success, meaning the resources available to them have also greatly improved. So almost 20 years later, with added life experience, added musical experience and a much improved production budget, how has the band changed with Transcendental Youth?
These songs are still built around Darnielle’s uncanny voice and penchant for telling stories. But you can tell he’s grown in the almost two decades since the lo-fi roughness of Sweden.
Epitomised early on by Lakeside View Apartments Suite,
there’s a sound of a growing patients in Dernielle. He still has stories that need to be told, but it sounds like he takes the time to craft them to as close to absolute perfection as possible. Whereas Sweden
sounded like a man with songs he had to get out there, and he had to get them out there as soon as possible, regardless of the shape they were in.
Cry for Judas goes all the way and is the most extravagant song I’ve ever heard from The Mountain Goats. Complete with soaring horn section and dancing fiddle, it’s big, full and ambitious, while never losing sight of the song writing that gives it such a solid base.
I don’t know what Jon Wurster does, but for such a subtle, un-flashy drummer, I always notice what he’s doing and I always love it. On a song like Harlem Roulette, there are no big fills, no indulgent solos, not a single extra snare snap, cymbal crash or kick drum beat that doesn’t need to be there. He keeps things simple, but is always contributing, never just supporting.
With Until I Am Whole, we get the song most reminiscent of Sweden, before things get more removed from that early album than ever, with Night Light. With its weird Celtic energy, this is by far the darkest sound to be found on Transcendental Youth.
Which is also immediately contradicted by The Diaz Brothers, an unexpected jaunt that almost sounds like the opening theme to an 80s cop show. But not a serious 80s cop show. The kind where two mismatched dudes get into hilarious predicaments before joking their way out of it.
On In Memory of Satan, Transcendental Youth busts out the horn section, but here, the song stays small and restrained. Even with the extra layers of instrumentation. Spent Gladiator 2 accomplishes a similar feat. It’s complete with drums, bass and piano, but it has a very similar feel to those complete stripped back, homemade sound of Sweden.
Which is what makes the title, closing track such an out of nowhere surprise. There are plenty of ingredients that have been heard on previous Transcendental Youth tracks, but here the horns, piano, slick production and Darnielle’s unusually retrained vocals make for an uplifting, dreamy sound of optimism that’s just completely out of the blue, yet completely appropriate at the same time.
18 years after Sweden, The Mountain Goats is a different band, I don’t just mean it has different members, which it does, with John Darnielle being the only Goat still hanging in there from those days. And I don’t just mean the fuller sound that comes with adding a permanent bass player and drummer (Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster respectively) to the line up. And I don’t just mean the crisp production sound that comes with having the budget to spend on studios, engineers and a producer. These songs are undeniably John Darnielle songs. For every way the band has changed and evolved, his fingerprints remain the same.
The Mountain Goats