The Mountain Goats
The Sunset Tree
et’s imagine that since 1991, John Darnielle has been traveling in reverse. At the onset of the 90’s, he faded into a dignified obscurity, weaving cryptic miniatures of Just About Anyone, stories that were both thematically universal and inaccessibly anonymous. His tender visions were filtered through a reverence for Petronius, whose Satyricon saw Rome, top-down, circa AD 61 in much the same way he pictured a lover’s transcendent reunion (gun-strapped) in Georgia, a cruelly hyperbolic passion for the Chicago Cubs, or a house full of meth-heads—enthrallingly human. He had achieved a quiet self-effacement, pouring his unmistakable voice out to the smallest of die-hard audiences, reigning in no-fi poetry with the help of a few stray guests and the blessings of modern boombox technology. (These documents were originally released on cassette and 7”, and only properly re-released at the turn of the decade on the Protein Source of the Future…Now!, Bitter Melon Farm, and Ghana compilations.)
In April 2005, the Mountain Goats appeared with The Sunset Tree, an album sprawling vivaciously across the spectrum of emotion and intellect, chronicling the painful youth of its singer, from self-medicating a nasty case of Abusive Stepfather with quality prescription narcotics, large headphones, and the volume knob, to learning to understand, survive, and grow through the cracks. It’s the album so many prolific singer-songwriters would try to make first; if Darnielle’s 90’s material presented the listener with little recourse from his idiosyncrasies, The Sunset Tree offers clearer avenues of attention and appreciation. His terse, sympathetic lyrical view occasionally rests on the superb contributions of his band, and he tackles the subjects closest to himself (though not always the most accessible) with the support of producer John Vanderslice’s rich, sparkling ambiences. (Incidentally, it’s easily the most sonically engaging of his “studio” records.) It’s no victory lap, nor does it feel like Darnielle is wading into memory for lack of a subject; The Sunset Tree is one of the most volatile, affecting and coherent records he’s made yet.
Darnielle’s lyrics are often funny, in a heartbreaking “isn’t life so just like that, how we have these beating hearts and they get out of control and we act a fool” kind of way. Characteristically, his best moments are an unusual blend of superhuman bitterness and performative melodrama, like the teeth-on-brick damnation of “In my life, I hope I lie, and tell everyone you were a good wife, and I hope you die, I hope we both die” from Tallahassee’s “No Children.” The best Mountain Goats material can make you laugh as often as it might make you crumble. The humor of The Sunset Tree, however, holds some punches. In Darnielle’s tragicomedies the main characters are voluntary victims—of drugs, alcohol, or what have you. Like the “The Fall of the High School Running Back” into an acid deal gone bad from 2002’s All Hail West Texas “your grandfather rode the boat over from Ireland, but you made a bad decision or two, yeah.”
Here, the suffering is at the hands of a tyrant, the stepfather, and the humor never comes with the dynamic of oppression. Instead, it’s the portraits of youth’s deep confusions: getting drunk and punching a video game console because it’s the only way you know how to say “I’m a virile adolescent and I’m pissed and that’s cool,” filling up your notebook with reasons not to freeze to death (the angst!), or feeling too untouchably awesome to care about your imminent arrest because you’ve got sweet dance music blaring from your stereo. It hovers so close because like life, it’s often unfair, unpoetic, plain contradictory, and retrospectively embarrassing—few of Darnielle’s stories have chronicled passions so unadorned and believable.
On the whole chronology thing: forget it, because it couldn’t have happened. The Sunset Tree charts the evolution of a maturity, and arrives at a place Darnielle has never been before. Our narrator starts the record slightly haywire, a confused youth maxing out on the raw nerves of bitterness and hope. “Dilaudid” is one of the most startling songs in their catalog, a swarming set of interlocking cello lines masterfully articulated by Erik Friedlander with Darnielle’s quaking tearfully at the center, delivering easily the most harrowing vocal of his career—no small feat for a guy who has spent a good portion of the last ten years searching for the perfect blend of violence and fragility. By “The Day That Dennis Brown Died,” he’s wondering about his own mortality, and like all of Darnielle’s work, it turns outward before reflecting inward, musing on the uninterrupted state of the world as a single life expires.
“Love Love Love” is going to put some people off; it rocks gentler than a nursery rhyme and references more, cough, controversial parts of the career of Kurt Cobain, but it also achieves meditative distance unlike anything he’s ever written. Said the wounded son to his stepfather, in a moment of empathy, “Now we see things, as in a mirror dimly, then we shall see each other face to face.” No raging passions here, but elliptical references to the staggering difficulty of parsing out each input of our most complex emotions, folding in Crime and Punishment’s conflicted murderer/imminent Christian Raskalnikov, a glimpse at Sonny Liston moments before his fight with Cassius Clay in 1964 (which many suspect was thrown for money), and the suicide of King Saul, who ended his life as the first king of the Hebrews to escape capture by the Philistines. These songs are memories unearthed after years of treading different paths. It’s psychic distance that turns these painful situations from red-eyed nightmares into emotional koans; was King Saul’s suicide out of love? For his people? For himself?
On “Pale Green Things,” the stepfather dies, years later, “at last,” a vocal lilt that picks the listener up only to let them slide down the tensions of the last forty minutes. Like “seaweed and Indiana saltgrass,” the narrator only then feels his own pale greenness, the humble statement of an organism poised for growth. During the climactic “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod” some songs earlier, the narrator vows that despite his abuse and hardships, “one of these days, I’m gonna wriggle up on dry land.” The analog is apt; The Sunset Tree is what came first, but the experiences only set the course for evolution.