As I listened to this new record I was reminded of Jack Kerouac’s novel, “Big Sur,” and about the journey some artists make to get to what’s broken inside them and then direct that knowledge back into their art. There’s a kind of revelation that takes place in artists who work this way. I thought about Darnielle and Kerouac and the nature of the personal confession in art. It’s a place of vulnerability, a place of anxious exposure. It’s also a most exciting place, where art and artist come together in ways we can witness and be part of, if we’re open to such things. This has been a hallmark of The Mountain Goats’ work since the band appeared, always with Darnielle in the lead, always confronting his role as artist, always expanding his reach as storyteller. Hundreds of songs and many records and still this songwriter plunges forward, sharing with us his doubts, his fears, and his hopes.
It’s tempting to call Darnielle’s work “bleak.” Albums like “The Life of the World to Come” (2009), with it’s Biblical themes, or “Heretic Pride” (2008) with it’s ‘swarming demons,’ there’s always a darker story woven into each record’s narrative. I’ve always seen him as a kind of musical short-story writer. Every song has a narrative, with rich and precise descriptions of places and feelings. Scenes of a life. Doubts of a life. It’s as if his writing philosophy has always been to take everyone along with him to the place where his emotional crises are confronted, then to tell us all about the crisis, in clear and easily understood language. Darnielle’s “confessions” are frequently frenetic and even harsh. The nature of confession in modern society is seen as the telling of something morally wrong. But confession can also mean sharing with another something that’s hidden and painful. And what’s hidden doesn’t have to be something negative. Confession can be made to friends, or even to strangers.
This new record, “Transcendental Youth,” is full of struggles, questions. As I listened to Darnielle’s lyrics I kept thinking, “Why are we always forced to choose?” Between hope and freedom? Between where we’re born and where we forced to live in order to be ourselves? Songs like “Until I Am Whole” and “Transcendental Youth” are restless and questioning. Somehow hope interferes with being whole. One has to be faced and dealt with in order to have the other. We’re not born whole. We have to define for ourselves what being whole means, and then seek it out. Origins are suspect, can’t be trusted. In these songs it almost feels like we’re born as two people: one born to the place, the other hating the place and longing to find a better place, a place of authentic belonging. To stay in the one and not seek the other is the essence of failure as Darnielle defines it. That’s the warning. Being alive is complicated and messy in Darnielle’s lyrics. And that’s the sense of Darnielle’s confessions I see in these words, as in Kerouac’s. Confession not to God, but to oneself, one’s friends and family, because it’s there that we get trapped, in the place, in the people, in the wrong life. And we don’t have a lot of time to work things out. “Days like dominos” fall, the lyrics in the song, “Lakeside View Apartments Suite,” declare, and best intentions never turn into action. This is the realm of Darnielle’s writing, which is why it’s tempting to feel despair in his work.
But then he writes a song like “Amy (AKA Spent Gladiator I),” my favorite track on this record (and maybe my favorite track so far to emerge from Darnielle’s pen). In this powerful song he rings with hope and defiance, even in the face of cynical, impossible forces. Do what you need to do, even if it’s stupid, “Climb limits past the limits,” because it’s your time and that’s what you have to do. If you stay alive, you win. In “Spent Gladiator II,” there’s ecstasy in being defiant. Do whatever it takes and just make sure you stay alive.
If all art is confession, what’s the good of the confession to the artist, even if made only to friends and family, not to mention any deeper spiritual authority? I think the confession is for the artist alone. It has something to do with telling the truth about the life you see before you, and the choices you make that shape you. John Darnielle has given us one more powerful exploration of his inner life as an artist. A few answers, and a lot of questions. And a beautiful collection of twelve new songs, cut back to essentials, with lyrics meant to be heard, to be taken seriously, and to be thought about, deeply.