Life is good for the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, but don’t expect him to write about it anytime soon. “The singer-songwriter who has a child and then suddenly writes a song about how he’s in love with the world is, in my mind anyway, a huge, horrible cliché,” Darnielle tells Rolling Stone, referring to the arrival of his 11-month-old son. “If I wanted to cultivate that muse, I would disappear for 10 or 15 years so I could learn to get good at it.”
Darnielle’s folk songs have dealt with childhood struggles and perseverance in the past. The Mountain Goats’ 2005 LP, The Sunset Tree, documented the abusive relationship he had with his stepfather. Master of Reality, a book he penned about a Black Sabbath album, takes on the perspective of a troubled teen who finds solace in heavy metal while in a mental facility.
“There’s always a lot of pleasure in my life,” Darnielle says. “But what I do is find dark things to sing about and try and infuse them with some sort of triumphant power.”
Transcendental Youth, their new LP hitting shelves October 2nd on Merge Records, is no different. The album has its share of dark matter, some of it drawn from personal experience. But after years of reflection and some work in the medical field, Darnielle has learned that people need to make their own mistakes.
“All the self-destructive stuff I did to myself when I was younger was vital, and I did it to stay alive,” Darnielle says. “So therefore it was all good. The only time it’s not good is when it hurts anybody else. Short of that, anything you do to make yourself OK, is OK.” The album cut “Cry for Judas” implores, “Speed up to the precipice and then slam on the breaks,” while “Amy a/k/a Spent Gladiator 1” simply advises, “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive.”
“I think all that is good advice,” Darnielle says. “That is what I hope I have the fortitude to tell my son to his face: ‘You do whatever you have to do to be happy. Your job as a human being is to be true to yourself.'”
The album is also populated with suspicious characters that find a way to exorcise their own demons. “They’re the sort of people you knew in high school that can’t seem to get it together,” Darnielle says about the subjects of his songs. “It looks as though they’re struggling, but at the same time they find a way.”
Darnielle started the Mountain Goats with gritty four-track recordings and has slowly evolved into a full band. The addition of pianos and violins came over the course of a few albums, and Transcendental Youth hosts a horn section fronted by the avant-garde jazz composer Matthew E. White.
“It reminds me of Van Morrison’s stuff, that’s a great vibe,” Darnielle says about the horn arrangements. “I like the record the way it is, but I would love to hear more horns.”
The Mountain Goats will bring the horn section along with them on tour in the fall.
Listen to the Mountain Goats’ “Cry for Judas”: