"Hold on one second," says The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle via phone from his home in North Carolina, seconds before dissolving into a charming cackle. "The baby is playing the piano, and he's hitting the bass notes!"
Don't be alarmed: The king of plaintive, musical psychoanalysis hasn't gone soft with the birth of his son, who's now 14 months old. This is the same guy, after all, who once wrote a song called "No Children," which included the matter-of-fact lyric, "I hope you die, I hope we both die." That guy is still in there, but things are a little lighter these days. Right now, Darnielle is most amused by his child's rather unsurprising — and somewhat dramatic — love for music.
"At song time, at the end when you go to put the guitar away, the baby screams as though you just killed his entire family," Darnielle says, chuckling again. "He's so upset; it's the best."
Ah-ha, there's the sort of prototypical Darniellian simile we're accustomed to, diapers and all. He's always had a talent for looping gloom and doom into eerily reassuring songs, through both personal narrative and numerous quirky characters. With his Mountain Goats, Darnielle has become a bit of an emo antithet, corralling and comforting his fans with sonic coping mechanisms to tackle life's shittiest moments. This year, as principal Goat and songwriter, he added to The Mountain Goats' extensive catalog with their latest, Transcendental Youth. It's a record that studies not the glories of youth but the growing pains that begin young and plague us through our lives, accented with horn arrangements by avant-garde jazz musician Matthew E. White.
"I am inspired by practically anything," Darnielle says. "That's kind of who I am."
Case in point: Darnielle has used most obstacles in his life — abuse, divorce, drug addiction — as wicked muses. But he draws the line when it comes to writing the quintessential "baby" record.
"If I were to go from being the guy whose main thing is to locate the places in the darkness and say, 'I will survive this,' to going, 'Ain't my life swell,' I'd be posing," he says. "It seems crass and careerist when someone makes their I-am-a-parent record." But Darneille certainly won't deny that family life has made him a happier man — on the surface, at least. So must he force a sense of suffering to keep making great art?
"I used to be deeply against this idea," Darnielle says. "And then I had some life events happen that were painful, and my writing got better as I worked through them. I don't think that an artist must suffer, but there is no one who is not going to do so. The question is whether or not you take that as an opportunity for greater growth. ... Good craft doesn't necessarily need suffering. But it can't hurt."
One suffering artist in particular, Amy Winehouse, inspired the opening track from Transcendental Youth. The song, "Amy aka Spent Gladiator 1," is a meditation on those drawn to extremes — addicts in particular — who don't always end up surviving their torments.
"She's a junkie, and so am I," Darnielle says. "I don't use now, and I lived. It was kind of a miracle. But not everybody makes it."
The song opens with the line, "Do every stupid thing that makes you feel alive." It's a lesson with a slippery slope.
"If you don't do what your gut tells you to do, you will probably carry that burden," Darnielle says. "But you want to make sure you place the ability to see the next day at the top of all the other needs." On The Mountain Goats' Facebook page, one fan commented that the song saved her from suicidal thoughts. Must be an onerous responsibility, no?
"I like to think that if it wasn't me, then they might have found a Joni Mitchell record," says Darnielle. "But at the same time, it's an honor to be there for somebody in their hour of darkness."
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