Advice on survival, terse portraits of marginal lives, glimpses of faith and epigrams of despair — “I’m still here/But all is lost” — share Transcendental Youth, the 14th studio album by the songwriter John Darnielle’s band, the Mountain Goats.
Those have all been regular touchstones among the hundreds of songs Darnielle has released since 1991. Through the last two decades, he has moved from low-fi cassette recordings to studio productions to leading a stable band, a sinewy trio with Peter Hughes on bass and Jon Wurster on drums behind Darnielle on guitar (usually acoustic) or keyboard (usually piano). Their folk-rock can be breezy or bleak, and the band keeps getting better at making music a full partner with lyrics in telling the stories.
Transcendental Youth isn’t exactly a concept album, but it is bookended, beginning and ending with directives and affirmations. “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive,” Darnielle sings in Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1, written after the death of Amy Winehouse. Many songs later, Spent Gladiator 2 counsels, “Stay in the game/Just try to play through the pain,” before the album closes with its title song, Transcendental Youth, which finds its transcendence in music.
In between are telegraphic, often cryptic sketches of people who have ended up alone: thugs about to be murdered, a starving homeless person, an artist turned recluse, a mental patient with visions. The upbeat Harlem Roulette glimpses the 1950s pop hit-maker Frankie Lymon at his last recording session before he would overdose on heroin, and then a radio listener in the future who “remembers that you’re gone.” The sparse Until I Am Whole is a study in depression that ends with the singer alone on a bench, digging his fingernails into his hands, musing, “I think I’ll stay here/Till I feel whole again/I don’t know when.”
The band used to simply propel Darnielle’s succinct melodies and his friendly but insistent voice; now, it has finer calibrations. In Night Light, for instance, the narrator’s paranoia banks down and flares up with a pattering snare-drum beat and chords that shift from sustain to syncopation. There’s also a new element on this album: horn arrangements by Matthew E. White that can be pop fanfares, an elegiac chorale or a plush big band. On this album, the music is as much an accomplice as an accompaniment.
— JON PARELES, NY Times News Service
“There’s a melody in stillness I can’t seem to play,” Kurt Elling sings yearningly, somewhere along the break in his natural range, during one of several muted but breathtaking moments on 1619 Broadway: The Brill Building Project. The lyric is his own, part of an extended flourish following the bridge of So Far Away, the Carole King song. And as is so often the case with Elling, the artistry lies in some intangible harmony of musical arrangement, interpretive detail and sheer vocal expression.
When any one of those elements skews the balance, the result can feel stagy or arch, overripe or overworked. So 1619 Broadway might seem, on the surface, like a perilous exercise. As the title suggests, it’s a concept album dedicated to the Midtown Manhattan pop factory known best for its songwriting teams. The repertory amounts to a mother lode of boomer nostalgia, and Elling could easily have made it solicitous or cloying.