Songwriter John Darnielle has been one of the more prolific figures in indie rock, turning out album after album of his melodically wistful tunes under the Mountain Goats moniker since he started with poorly recorded cassette albums in the early '90s. Transcendental Youth is the 14th proper Mountain Goats album, and it's a dark ride, seeing Darnielle return to the depressive character studies and possibly autobiographical bleak tales that made up some of his most striking work. Beginning with the strident and almost bounding "Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1," all of the trademark elements of a Mountain Goats album fall immediately into place: Darnielle's wiry personality and sometimes breathless voice, quickly transitioning pop song structures, and lyrics that shift from humorous to dire in the space of a line or two. On album number 14, some of these trademarks are to the point of interchangeability with his other work, never to a song's detriment, but just in the way where some artists really investigate the different angles a given sonic device can be seen from before it gets tired. Even when melodies sound vaguely familiar, Transcendental Youth is set apart by both the grim atmosphere that Darnielle weaves with his lyrics and the contradictory expanded instrumentation that fills up his regularly skeletal acoustic guitar-strummed numbers. "Cry for Judas" is one of the more upbeat Mountain Goats songs in recent memory, with a bright horn section surfing on waves of bouncy drums and damn-near triumphant vocals about abandonment and heartbroken Biblical hallucinations. The horn section reappears on the titular track to propel its wintry lyrics into a jovial stratosphere. This sophisticated instrumentation doesn't always make these dour songs sound happier. The ghostly piano and fretless bass duo of "Until I Am Whole" make way for Beatlesque effected background vocals. While the effect is unlike anything we've heard from the Mountain Goats before, the project's unique breed of smirky hopelessness is at an all-time high here. Not since the Florida-centric song cycle of 2002's Tallahassee has Darnielle sounded this close to the edge. Like all of his best work, however, Transcendental Youth is no self-indulgent mope-fest, but a spirited, and in this case fearless, exploration of the dark corners of life's often tragic twists and turns. Darnielle battles some serious demons here (as on the autumnally orchestrated "In Memory of Satan") in a way more self-observant than self-conscious. His unique literary view into both the banal and the horrific mix with the most interesting and developed arrangement of any Mountain Goats album and the result is some of the strongest, most compelling work of an already brilliant run.
AllMusic Review by Fred Thomas