JOHN DARNIELLE just kicked a throw rug underneath a heating vent, where it is now stuck. This happens at the moment he's explaining how he's always maintained a positive view of the world, even through his dark days battling addiction. Needless to say, the irony isn't lost on the Mountain Goats' frontman when he says his current predicament makes him "murderously angry." "I still can't get this rug out from underneath this vent. Should I end my life?"
Darnielle is always funny and engaging. He's well read, but approachable—sort of an intelligent dude's dude. And he's willing to talk about damn near anything: His love for authors like Joan Didion and William Gass. His love for metal bands like the Devil's Blood. His past struggles with addiction. And now, fatherhood—although don't expect life as a daddy to creep into his songs.
"When people change their art because of having a child, I'm very suspicious," says Darnielle by phone from his North Carolina home. "Everything doesn't have to be about hope for the future, and I don't feel you have to soften your thoughts on things."
The Mountain Goats' latest LP, Transcendental Youth, is more about growing pains than the optimism of being young. As with past records, Darnielle's characters are dealing with their own struggles. While most of his characters are just that—characters—the song "Amy AKA Spent Gladiator 1," for example, was written after the death of Amy Winehouse in July of 2011. It's immediate not only in message, but also from a musical standpoint, making it easily the best song on the record.
Transcendental Youth again shows the band (which includes multi-instrumentalist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster) in top form, providing the bedrock for Darnielle's bleak but hopeful tales. The band adds another layer with a horn section led by avant-garde musician Matthew E. White, who adds bright blasts of brass to the title track.
"It's richer," Darnielle says of the new record. "There's more piano, which is my first instrument. With guitar, I'm a kid with a hammer—I treat my guitar like a percussion instrument."
It's a far cry from the Mountain Goats' early boombox recordings. And while the production has become more sophisticated, and the music tighter, since 2002's All Hail West Texas, Darnielle hasn't lost his knack for giving voices to the voiceless. He's even occasionally done so with concept albums, like Tallahassee, which dealt with a marriage coming unraveled, and the ambitious The Life of the World to Come, in which Darnielle—an atheist—took on the Bible.
Transcendental Youth is more of a mixed bag, but no less intense. The upbeat and strummy "Harlem Roulette" incorporates the story of Frankie Lymon, who worked on a song in a studio in 1968, then went home and overdosed on heroin at the age of 25. It's less about Lymon as it is about the idea of tragedy striking in the middle of mundane, day-to-day life.
Even as Darnielle continues to immerse himself in the lives of characters dealing with life's obstacles, he remains optimistic. Maybe realistic is the right word. Just don't attribute it to him becoming a father. "I had that attitude even when I was broke. It's bedrock. Things are going to happen regardless of how you react to it."