The Sunset Tree – The Mountain Goats
The Sunset Tree begins with an invitation to the exhumation. John Darnielle is digging up the skeletons, shaking off the dust, scouring the bones, and putting them on display. He settles into a southern California hotel room sometime after the death of his abusive stepfather in 2004 and
sets to sifting. The album that follows serves as a survivor's manual — a highly singable (in places damn near danceable) "How to Survive Abuse and Move On" pamphlet.
In a market where pain sells, where self-indulgent wallowing is rewarded, where it seems any sad sack with a six-string can step
up to the mic with a tear-stained journal and drip misery down on the fawning masses, that might sound like a recipe for disaster, just another mopey bastard swapping sorrow for dollars, and in most hands it would be. But John Darnielle is not just any songwriter. He has a back catalog replete
with meticulously crafted fictive narratives that strike directly at the heart of his characters and lay bare their humanity, and he brings the same incisive pen to bear in this intensely autobiographical effort. It's a beauty, a kiss off, a heartbreaker, and — finally — an acceptance.
_There’s bound to be a ghost in the back of you closet,
no matter where you live.
There'll always be a few things, maybe several things,
that you're gonna find really difficult to forgive.
- "Up the Wolves"_
Darnielle dedicates the album to his stepfather, whose drunken ravings and violent abuses seemingly dominated Darnielle's childhood. In these interdependent narratives, Darnielle effects multiple means of escape from the house where "nobody… wants to own up to the truth," where
he is hemmed in and stifled by detritus — piles of newspaper, carpets covered in cat hair, dirty dishes, spare rooms full of junk. He flees, hops behind the wheel of a car, "Six cylinders underneath the hood/thrashing and kicking." He sneaks a bottle of scotch into the arcade and takes his
aggression out on the video games with his fists. He hides out in the flowing hair of a girl named Kathy. Predictably, he turns to the page, "writ[ing] down good reasons to freeze to death in my spiral ring notebook," and perhaps more predictably, he retreats into music.
At five or
six-years-old, when stepfather takes aim at his mother's face with a cocktail glass, he flies up the stairs, leans in on his tiny record player, cranks it to eleven, and listens to dance music. It's a tense, if not horrifying, scene, but Darnielle (as he did a few years ago on the gleefully hateful "No
Children") juxtaposes the fear with a spry piano fill, jaunty riffing, and a rapid-fire, hip-hop inspired delivery that has your head bobbing before you really realize what's really happening in the narrative.
It's a common technique here, one that he also applies to the anthemic "This Year," which finds a similarly spare piano figure paired with a relentlessly churning guitar. The former keeps the chin up while the latter reinforces the ardent-hearted insistence that he will, "make it through this year
if it kills me." The song concludes with undying hope — "there will be feasting and dancing in Jerusalem this year." It's a hope echoed in "Up the Wolves," where Darnielle speaks directly to his target audience (as the liner notes state, "any young men and women anywhere who live with people who
abuse them.") He says, quite simply, "There's gonna come a day when you feel better." Of course, he doesn't fool himself. He too remembers the days and nights dreaming of revenge, plotting the demise of the tyrant.
I’m gonna get myself in fighting trim
Scope out every angle of unfair advantage
I'm gonna bribe the officials
I'm gonna kill all the judges
It's gonna take you people years
to recover from all of the damage
- "Up the Wolves"
Musically, "Up the Wolves" is the album's finest moment. Peter Hughes' buoyant bass abets the acoustic, and strings and organ blend perfectly into the whole. But the album is not always so successful. The sore thumb is "Dilaudid." Tense strings serve as the sole musical accompaniment. They do
their job I suppose; the song is indeed tense. But the real power of Darnielle's spare early work is his ability to bring that tension all by himself, his ability to imply a giant, stomping rhythm track or the multi-tracked crunch of electric guitars with only his voice and the acoustic. When you
see him live, you suspect that the veins in his neck might just pop and splash the front row with blood. In short, he doesn't need anything to add tension to his pieces. But the strings are there, and in an effort to match the tension he ratchets up his vocal performance, dropping a
histrionic, "Take your foot off the brake, for Christ's sake!" that pushes the piece too close to self-parody. The track tries to sound tense when it should simply be tense.
Better is the awkwardly titled "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod," which is left lightly adorned. The tension lies in the subject matter. He comes home to stepfather passed out on the couch, knows better than to wake him, and retreats unsuccessfully to his room.
_But I do wake you up, and when I do
you blaze down the hall and you scream
I'm in my room, deep in the dream chamber
and then I'm awake and I'm guarding my face
hoping you don't break my stereo
because it's the one thing I can't live without
and so I think about that
and then I sorta blackout
- "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod"_
The flat delivery paints the scene as a matter of course. After he comes to, he'll bleach the blood-stained sheets and go about his routine. The flying fists won't go away, but with any luck the music won't either. With that, he'll get through. One can't help but assume that Darnielle hopes his
album will be pumping through some kid's headphones, offering the same kind of solace and retreat his childhood soundtrack offered him, propping some kid up, reminding him that he/she can and will live through it.
His good news is that Darnielle did survive it all and get past it. Despite it all, he believes, "The things you do for love are going to come back to you one by one." The album is bookended by the opening invitation and "Pale Green Things," which finds Darnielle unearthing a peaceful memory of
his stepfather the day he learns of his death. It's an innocuous scene at a horse track, with none of the glass-hurling, face-battering violence of the scathing mid-section. He's careful to remind us, "that morning at the race track was one thing I remember."
Not the only mind you, but there is
this one, clean memory. It may not be outright forgiveness, but there is a tenderness here, a willingness to look back without anger. In the parking lot, "Pale Green Things" struggle up through the cracks of the concrete, eking out a meager but steadfast existence. The image returns us to the
"black tarry asphalt" of the opening track, tying the album together in a circle of remembrance, pain, hatred, unfulfilled revenge, and eventually acceptance.
This album has had its heel on my windpipe for weeks now. As over-long as this review may be, it was pared down from much longer ramblings. There is a depth here that warrants careful exploration. Ever since Tallahassee, the Mountain Goats have felt important. His thematically bound
albums (notice the careful avoidance of "concept albums") are clearly intended as Art. They don't click on all cylinders, but I'd rather see an artist aim high and fall short than just churn out another record. The Sunset Tree is a step forward in all ways. While I will always prefer the
crappy production values of All Hail! West Texas where he's just wrecking that acoustic and trying to scream over the whirr of the tape reels, it's clear that Darnielle is coming into his own in the formal studio. The better tracks here follow a straight line of growth from the devastating
Tallahassee through We Shall All Be Healed and confirm that Darnielle is crafting a distinctive sound for the Mountain Goats. As the second album inspired by autobiography, it far outstrips 2004's up and down effort. Darnielle, who was already one of the finest songwriters working,
is improving as he extends his grasp, and that's pretty damn exciting.
All that jabbering, and I didn't even get to say that "Song For Dennis Brown" is my favorite meditation on death song since "Brokedown Palace."