John Darnielle: Youthful, at 45
We all hear a lot about the rules when we’re young, and we rebel against them. Crossing the boundaries is one of the best parts of being a teenager, and rule breaking is a thrill that few other activities can provide. There is that one rule though, the one that transcends youth, a rule for every age: Just. Stay. Alive. The only problem is that some of us don’t get it till we’re already on the other side, be it adulthood, or the box.
But John Darnielle knows it, feels it, and sings it into his latest album, Transcendental Youth. Just stay alive, urges Darnielle, in the riskiest, rule-breaking, wherever-your-heart-takes-you way possible.
Transcendental Youth is the fourteenth studio album of the Mountain Goats, the musical project of Darnielle. Darnielle studied English in college, and is the author of the short epistolary novel Master of Reality. As a writer, his lyrics are poetic enough to be read without music. But the music he adds, the soft, yet sharp, simple chords, give voice to the poetry of his lyrics.
In a strange, separate from self moment in “Lakeside View,” the second track on Transcendental, Darnielle refers to “John, John,” playing postman again. Is he referring to himself? Perhaps, as the whole point of Transcendental Youth is the importance of out-of-self experiences, of stepping outside of the box and doing things just to see how bad they make you feel. “Whistle a tuneless tune,” commands Darnielle, asking his listener to do things that may not seem positive or melodic, but help harmonize the experience of life into a blend of danger and excitement.
The excitement is achieved through freedom. Transcendental Youth beseeches the listener not to Get Lonely (2006), but to get free, free from the self and able to explore and someday be reborn. “But no one screams cause it's just me/ Locked up in myself/ Never gonna get free,” sings Darnielle.
Although the album references a lakeside, and counterfeit Florida plates, there is no concrete setting. We move from North East 33rd to Harlem to Snohomish. The surreal setting of the album seems to be transcendental youth, a place where anything is possible and anyone can do what they want, regardless of who judges or looks on with disapproval when we do things we don’t really mean.
One track, “In Memory of Satan,” illustrates this perfectly. The narrator remembers a devilish time, when the narrator wrecks a nameless place with paints, and then mourns the mess he’s created. He wakes up with his cell phone stuck to the side of his face, calling old friends for favors. The state of transcendent youth is not a pleasant one. It’s a messy state, a prison where one encounters past and present selves, and can never really escape from mirrors in the brain. Instead, he is a “broken machine” doing things he “doesn’t really mean,” unconsciously and recklessly scratching away at floorboards and identities.
The digital album booklet of Transcendental features a quote from Magdalena Tulli, “In the darkness she inhabited, only that which shown with its own light could be seen.” Make an impact, says Darnielle. Shine a light that reflects what you are. The chorus for “Cry for Judas” rings true: “Long black night/morning frost/I’m still here/with all this loss.” Despite the night, and the loss, the self, and light prevails. The sun rises anew.
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On January 16, Darnielle plays to a small, privileged group, sitting on the floor of Studio X in Soho. He arrives casually, waiting in the lobby with his fans for the elevator, not peeved by their affections. He doesn’t care that they approach him for autographs, and calmly, almost nonchalantly, steps into the elevator. After mingling amongst the crowd, he sits down to a dialogue with Frank Bill, author of Donny-Brook, a forthcoming novel about fighting and boxing.
Somehow, Darnielle, whose fans now are petitioning to nominate him for poet laureate, finds poetry in boxing. There is indie rock in boxing, says Darnielle, as boxing is a minority in the wild world of sports. He empathizes with the passion created by the fight, and he sees all art as a sort of fight, and all sport as an art. Even Darnielle’s abusive past comes up, yet he discusses details of his tortured childhood at a distance. Darnielle’s story of his abusive past adds new meaning to his album about youth, as his own youth was littered with abuse, drugs, and drudgery.
After the conversation, Darnielle sits down alone on stage and plays a short set. He begins with “Cutter,” a song he only plays live, where he sings about how “I’m gonna wrap up all my troubles in you,” remembering a previous friend who dots their i’s in a way he’s just noticed recently, reading over letters.
“Transjordanian Blues” comes next, a morbid and pessimistic song that ends with salvation. The crowd loves “You Were Cool,” yet another live only song, in which Darnielle looks back on a girl in high school who he’s still friends with to this day, and wistfully sings about how even though people were mean to her, he thought her clacking spiked heels added flavor to his high school halls.
He finishes with an audience request, “Terror Song” where he walks out into the middle of the crowd and asks the audience to shout along. Throughout, he interacts with his audience, and they listen patiently. The room is silent, and Darnielle plays unamplified, putting soul and heart into his songs as an offering to his audience. This audience receives, applauding wildly after, and talking to him when he chills out in the crowd after. He’s tired and burnt out from playing Carnegie Hall the night before, but he’s youthful, vigorous, and full of spirit.
Youth, Darnielle demonstrates, is transcendental. The youth one experiences at 18 is different then the youth of 30 or the youth of 50. But youth is intrinsic to any age. And arguably, youth is better on the other end, past the demons of teenagehood, when you emerge with your heart beating. All of this is youth, and fighting “limits past the limits” is a state of being, transcendent of age. And the concert experience Darnielle provides is transcendental and transportative, taking the listener to places old and young, inspiring his audience to live life alongside the child in all of us.
Transcendental Youth is available on iTunes and on amazon.com.