The Mountain Goats' 14th studio record began with one song about a man lost and helpless, fighting an urge to give up. And although John Darnielle could be recognized in that narrator's voice, the song was describing themes he'd never really touched on in other songs.
"Until I Am Whole" came to Darnielle out of the blue, while on tour for 2011's All Eternals Deck. The song, about a man in the Pacific Northwest facing crippling depression, struck both Darnielle and his manager/producer as one of the strongest ones he'd written in years. And it opened the songwriting door into Transcendental Youth, an album that meditates on themes of death, darkness and struggle.
"I'm not a goal-oriented person. I work from a vibe. ('Until I Am Whole') felt like it was in an area that seemed fertile, and that's how I work," Darnielle says. "When you write a certain song, it'll feel like you've walked into a room, and there's all sorts of other stuff when you look around, and it's in this area where stuff will happen."
The death of Amy Winehouse inspired a song that shows up in two parts on Transcendental Youth. Taken together, "Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1" and "Spent Gladiator 2" focus on people who become victims of their own demons. While the famous ones are celebrated as tragic figures, they're far from the only ones to share a fate like that of Winehouse.
"If you have problems you came onto the field with, you wake up in battle, and you go to bed in battle. You don't have a lot of choice in the matter," Darnielle says. "I think people, we have this idea that if something is exciting or interesting, then it's better, but I don't think that's necessarily true."
Elsewhere on the album ("Cry for Judas," "In Memory of Satan"), Darnielle molds religious imagery into tales of reclusive oddballs and broken people on the edge of basic survival.
"Satan on this record counts as a dark principle of embracing the things that the world calls evil," he says. "For the most part, religious imagery and personified good and evil types, they're not my entire home, but they're a big part of my home. That sort of milieu is where my stuff rests a lot of the time."
Yet the album's darkness and despair comes with at least a little optimism. On "Harlem Roulette," a punchy song that examines loneliness, Darnielle sings, "Even awful dreams are good dreams if you're doing it right."
On this album, the characters by no means have their shit together, but for the most part, they're still doing what they can to navigate life. A just-keep-going spirit may not lead to the best places in life, but it's still life.
"I know one or two people who think in terms of whether they'll find a solution to their problems or not, but I think most people are just doing," he says. "Maybe I'm strange, but I feel that people don't have plans. They just do, and sort it out later."
Darnielle, a natural-born storyteller, got into music accidentally, buying a $79 guitar in a Southern California strip mall in the late 1980s, just because he didn't know what else to do.
"I was making $1,200 a month, and it seemed like a mint to me. I started setting my poems to music, because poetry is sort of a lonely pursuit. I wanted to make something that was a little more sharable," he says. "Poetry is really solitary, and with music, on the other hand, if you're entertaining, people will hear what you're saying."
He learned on the fly, at first setting his poems to "super-simple" chord progressions.
"I'm fortunate in that my professor was very strict about understanding how rhythms work. My numbers, my lines scanned in a natural way so they'd fit into a song pretty easily. Verse is an area of infinite freedom within a set of restrictions, and in songs, you can demonstrate that. Lots of poetry tricks become easy to see," he says. "My aesthetic priority with poetry was to do something that had a directness to it. I wanted something a little more visceral.
"I try to write clearly so people don't have to slow themselves down too much to get something out of it, but I don't think about what the themes are going to mean to people. I always think that if you're thinking too hard about what people will make of your songs, things are going to get stunted."
Darnielle started recording at home on a boombox, and his literate, rhythmic songs found their way to a growing audience through the 1990s. In 2002, the Mountain Goats released Tallahassee on 4AD, which would be the band's home for six albums. With its current lineup of Darnielle on vocals, guitar and keyboard; bassist Peter Hughes; and drummer Jon Wurster (Superchunk), the band has released two albums—Transcendental Youth and All Eternals Deck—on Merge Records.
Transcendental Youth, which was released in October, includes more prominent horn arrangements than the Mountain Goats have used in the past. Matthew E. White wrote the horn arrangements and is opening on this tour, with his three-piece horn section playing with the Mountain Goats as well.
"I got the idea for horns when Matthew's act played a show down here, and I thought those horns sounded really great. I just wrote the songs and started getting near studio time and called Mathew to talk about arrangements," Darnielle says. "There's a large amount of spontaneity in the way I work. I have to be going off ideas I have rather than sitting down and drawing up a plan. I tend to work on an if-the-spirit-moves-you model."
With White's horn section, the Mountain Goats are performing their longest-ever live shows on this so-called "Nameless Dark Tour," playing songs from Transcendental Youth as well as fan favorites from the past.
"When I was first starting out, for me, there was value in the short set, but now, people pay a fair amount of money to get in, so I'm pleased we're playing some pretty intense shows," Darnielle says.