The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle: Auteur of Empathy

John Darnielle has never been one to mince words. Throughout his career as the primary singer/songwriter of the Mountain Goats, he let his radical honesty act as a compass to guide listeners to his insight on the human condition.
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John Darnielle has never been one to mince words. Throughout his career as the primary singer/songwriter of the Mountain Goats, he let his radical honesty act as a compass to guide listeners to his insight on the human condition: He has relayed the excruciating mess of a failed marriage ("No Children"), the loss of a friend ("New Star Song"), and the uncompromising determination to stay alive even when you've reached rock bottom ("This Year"). His greatest asset, though, is an overarching sense of empathy that makes his sullen subject matter read like a letter from a sad but loving friend who is wrapped in a straightjacket of cynicism. He struggles, and you want to set him free.

Darnielle's latest LP, his fourteenth with the Mountain Goats, is evocatively titled Transcendental Youth. "The working titles were Infernal Youth and Satanic Youth," Darnielle told me by telephone, "But I sort of wanted the sense of how when you connect to inner darkness the sense of being able to transcend your physical or actual circumstances -- to free yourself from inner processes."

Darnielle isn't primarily known for expressing the specifics of battling his psychological turmoil in an autobiographical sense (the lone exception of this, 2005's The Sunset Tree, has him rattling off traumatic experiences he endured living with an abusive stepfather); instead, Darnielle creates characters to express his inner demons for him. On Transcendental Youth, we are introduced to drug addicts, depressives and deadbeats.

Consider the picturesque, satanic imagery describing a character on "Cry for Judas": "Unfurl the black velvet altar cloth, draw a white chalk baphomet/Mistreat your altar boys long enough, and this is what you get." It's a pretty irascible screed, and the narrative of the subjects on Transcendental Youth is what catalyzes the album's pathos. For Darnielle, his storytelling is a form of therapy through fiction that ultimately reflects his personal philosophy.

Listening to a record that is lyrically chock full of gut-wrenching neuroses would be emotionally fatiguing for many, but Transcendental Youth is also guided by something conspicuously absent in other Mountain Goats records -- hope. Now, that isn't to say this album serves as an aural companion to Chicken Soup for the Soul's tales of self-healing and inspiration. Instead, we get tersely delivered tried-and-true sentiments from a man who has been around the block more than a few times.

"Just stay alive, keep your eyes on the pay line," Darnielle sings on "Spent Gladiator II." He's looking in the mirror with sober eyes and learning to acknowledge and accept all of life's facets, from its perplexing contradictions to its heartbreaking catastrophes to its shimmering glimmers of hope that make it all worth it. Yes, life is tough. But with a soldier-on attitude, life can be manageable.

"The part of me that's in my songs is that I am a person who however bad things are going, I tend to get back up," said Darnielle. "We live unbearably long amounts of time," he said with a chuckle. "I just tend to keep going. Once or twice, I've hit depression so hard I couldn't move out of bed, and I do know what that's like. But for the most part, I have always been a kid who gets back up. It's something that's naturally occurring to me. I have a sort of persistence, and I think it comes through in the songs. "

Sonically, the album's lustrous instrumentals lift Transcendental Youth's emotional weight, giving the record a sumptuous glow that Darnielle previously eschewed in favor of coarser arrangements. It's clear that while Darnielle is the principal songwriter of the Mountain Goats, this isn't anything resembling a solo record; a full band arrangement is pervasive here, and each individual collaborator is paramount to the LP. Among the highlights are Matthew E. White's gallant horn arrangements in "Cry for Judas" and Scott Solter's brooding organ tones on "Night Light."

"It's a group process -- I'm not an auteur in the Brian Wilson sense," said Darnielle. "There's a song like 'Night Light' that's largely Scott Solter's baby. I gave Matthew White loose, impressionistic verbal directions. Like on 'Cry for Judas,' I asked him to listen to the horn arrangements on Van Morrison's 'Tupelo Honey' and he was off to the races. But I give as much leeway to collaborators as I can. I build a skeleton, and then we surround the skeleton and try to put flesh on it."

The effort from Darnielle and his supporting musicians appears to have paid off, as Transcendental Youth continues the Mountain Goats' streak of critically acclaimed records, earning laudation from The A.V. Club, Popmatters, and Spin, just to name a few. Darnielle seems to carry higher spirits in his personal life as well, as he recently became a father. This may have initially caused Mountain Goats fans to raise eyebrows -- remember, 10 years ago this guy wrote a song called "No Children." I asked Darnielle if he looks at parenting with the same worries that are so prevalent in his songs.

"People go through all sorts of things, but we've built a really nice house together, my wife and I, as far as communication and openness and health. The world is the world, and you're going to go through what you go through, but I don't worry too much about it. I mean obviously as a parent you worry that your child will go forth and see the world and will encounter the world as it is, but in our house things will always be safe."

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