In between the release of 2011’s All Eternals Deck and the new Transcendental Youth, 45-year-old Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle became a first-time father—a potential warning sign that gooey new-dad platitudes lie ahead. But instead of moon-faced, toddler-dedicated piano ballads, Youth is a surprisingly dark affair, populated by Darnielle’s usual cast of misfits, shut-ins, and lowlifes. (Judas Iscariot, Satan, and Scarface’s never-seen Diaz brothers also make guest appearances.) It’s another perfectly observed collection of songs made real by Darnielle’s deceptively plainspoken poetry.
That’s not to say that all of Youth is bleak. In what could be read as either a bold fake-out or a stirring prologue, the album opens with the impossibly upbeat, YOLO-friendly “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator I.” “Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive,” crows Darnielle. “People might laugh at your tattoos/ When they do get new ones in completely garish hues.” It’s an unabashedly corny (and winning) life-affirmer of a song, in the same vein as “This Year” from 2005’s The Sunset Tree. The rest of Youth isn’t quite as inspirational: “Lakeside View Apartments Suite” pensively tells the story of a junkie waiting for “the guy who’s got the angel dust,” while “In Memory Of Satan” gets inside the head of a paranoid agoraphobic. The album’s much-discussed horn section—supplied by avant-garde jazz composer Matthew E. White—is a pleasant surprise, and buoys tracks like “Satan” and the terrific “Cry For Judas.” Album standout “Harlem Roulette,” meanwhile, beautifully ties the story of R&B singer Frankie Lymon (who died of a heroin overdose at age 25) to “some no-one from the future” hearing a Lymon song on the radio. “The loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you’re never going to see again,” sings Darnielle on “Harlem Roulette.” The characters of Youth may appear to be invisible and alone, but their struggles to stay alive render them anything but.