Transcending the Mundane Yet AgainMusic — By Anthony Easton on October 23, 2012 at 3:00 am
Mountain Goats leader John Darnielle always reminds me of poets like the Anglican George Herbert or the Latter Day Saint Eliza Snow — people who ended up doing theology through the back door, whose ideas and concepts about the nature of God were presented through another medium, and so the medium itself became of vital importance.
As a priest, George Herbert gave weekly sermons that charted the daily ups and downs of his semi-rural
community in 17th Century England. But his denomination was in the middle a large period of upheaval — and so his poetry, at a distance from his ecclesial work, provided larger and more complicated contexts, contexts that his sermons could not hope to contain. Eliza Snow, on the other hand, was an LDS hymn writer — and so her hymns were intended for congregations to sing and to express their nascent faith. She went in the opposite direction of Herbert; and so her work, intended for ecclesial audiences, became universal in its reach.
On their new album Transcendental Youth, and throughout their career, the Mountain Goats have worked a middle between those two methods. Though Darnielle’s lyrics are explicitly secular, he is living in a world of Post-Christendom and so is never sure how he relates to a religious worldview. His central question is one of audience: Who he is singing to, and what messages he is imparting?
Darnielle takes religion, including the Christian religion, very seriously. He takes the religious lives of teenagers seriously. Think of playing with darkness as it happens in suburban garages, bored teenage boys playing with Satanism as an orthogonal to the banality of their parents’ Christendom. It is a common tragedy and a clichéd one, but a song like 2002’s “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”, with its discussion of two boys who are separated because of their interest in rock and roll, and with its chorus of “Hail, Satan,” is shocking in its earnestness. Darnielle seems to want Satan to protect these two boys in the middle of Ohio.
On Transcendental Youth, Darnielle maintains this desire to take the banality of lived spiritual experience seriously. “Cry For Judas” and “White Cedar” combine the transcendent and the mundane in ways that are haunting but seem already played out a bit: he sings about the renewal of the spirit, waiting for the bus, and being called a “new creature” in that moment. When he talks about being on lockdown, or the problems of altar boys, or when he sings in the chorus of “White Cedar”, “I will be reborn someday, someday, when I wait long enough” — even though he mentions all this under the auspices of the songs’ characters, one wonders if they are calls for Darnielle to renew his work.
“Cry For Judas” moves me, it’s beautifully written, and the piano/horn section is a long way away from Darnielle’s roots in basement tapes — but the moral exhortations are not as crisp, and the stories are not as specific as they could be. Some songs become all moral exhortation, like opening track “Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1”, with its permission giving. Sometimes they get too hermetic — the chorus to “The Diaz Brothers” is one of those jangly earworm masterpieces that the Mountain Goats excel at, but we never really know who the Diaz brothers are or why they’re receiving mercy.
One doesn’t go to popular music for prophetic texts (it seems silly to even say that out loud); if they happen it becomes a miracle. But Darnielle seems capable of delivering the same would-be prophetic texts over and over again. Messages and methods return. There are messages here: one-liners, the odd bright aphorism, the cryptic line that seems to inscribe a past lyric into poetry. Darnielle’s writing becomes like Herbert’s, but he has spent a lot of time like Herbert. It seems greedy to be disappointed, but even the greedy critic deserves grace now and again.