Whether it’s “This Year” on 2005’s The Sunset Tree, or “Liza Forever Minnelli” on last year’s All Eternals Deck, every Mountain Goats record features a song that nudges ahead of everything else on the album. These songs don’t necessarily overshadow the others on the record, although it’s evident that something extra went into the writing and recording of them. Nothing wrong with being assured of something.
On Transcendental Youth the Mountain Goats’ 14th album and second on Merge Records, that song is “Harlem Roulette,” a brisk folk number that appears a quarter of the way through. It’s an impressionistic tale focused on Rock `n’ Roll Hall of Famer Frankie Lymon, who with his group the Teenagers, asked that eternal and as yet unanswered question: why do fools fall in love? But “Harlem Roulette” doesn’t take place in the malt shop, and there are no girls in poodle skirts. It’s set in 1968, as Lymon was recording was recording what would be his final single “Seabreeze.” In a celebratory mood after the session, which was to be the first step in a career revival, he took a shot of heroin, and wound up dead on his grandmother’s apartment in Harlem.
Later in the song, head Goat John Darnielle pictures some “no one” years later, in the Pacific Northwest listening to a Lymon song, “remembering that you’re gone.” It’s a tenuous connection to someone else, but it’s a connection nevertheless, cause as the chorus “Harlem Roulette” tells us, “The loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you never see again.”
This not to say that the rest of the record slouches. Elsewhere on Transcendental Youth Darnielle adorns his folk songs with mournful English brass band flourishes, like those on the elegiac “White Cedar.” There’s also the irresistibly jaunty piano rock of “The Diaz Brothers,” a lament for the murdered duo in Scarface. Darnielle has been writing songs this good since he began releasing lo-fi cassettes in the early 1990s, and Transcendental Youth is another darkly high mark in his career.
Stream: Mountain Goats – “Cry For Judas”