To many people (your humble reviewer included), the Mountain Goats aren’t merely a band – they are an obsession to the point of being nearly fetishistic. We spend an inordinate amount of time hunting down old cassette-only releases and trading live bootlegs, tracking John Darnielle’s decade-long music career with a fervent dedication that is normally only seen in the devoutly religious.
While this type of behavior might seem befuddling to outsiders, it’s not really much of a mystery. The characters in Darnielle’s flash narratives tread the line of the everyman; they are at once instantly recognizable and eminently knowable, and even if we are not as poetic as some of his near-mythic protagonists, we can still easily identify with their plights. His songs resonate with us because it seems as if he is singing about our lives and our own personal triumphs and failures. And even when the songs are autobiographical in nature – such as 2004’s We Shall All be Healed – they still feel deeply personal, the conviction in Darnielle’s nasally voice transforming his history into a blanket confessional that became entirely relatable to our own occasionally troubled pasts.
The Sunset Tree, the latest release from the Goats, follows a narrative path similar to the one laid out in We Shall All be Healed; however, while the latter deals with the troubles (and the eventual fallout) of an early adulthood spent on pharmaceuticals and dirty motel floors, the former delves into Darnielle’s earlier life, seemingly sorting out the sordid details of his teenage years. This new collection of intensely personal narratives is perhaps Darnielle’s best work yet; while the material is at times uncomfortable and discomfiting, one can’t help but be fascinated – and a little touched – as Darnielle unflinchingly details a young man’s dread at his stepfather’s approach, the comfort found in the arms of strange lovers, and the acceptance and resolution found in the older, wiser years of adulthood.
The album keeps the same hi-fi studio production that the Goats have been utilizing since 2002’s Tallahassee. Longtime friends and collaborators Peter Hughes, Franklin Bruno, and John Vanderslice are back in tow, with Vanderslice and engineer Scott Solter manning the boards. And while the songs do not display the same sort of revelatory experimentation found in We Shall All be Healed, they do show Darnielle and company to be more at ease both in the studio and playing as a full, complementary ensemble; the sound is a little more unified and cohesive, with the songs sharing a stylistic similarity throughout the album. This might partly be due to the addition of cellist Erik Friedlander to several of the tracks; his work throughout the album is extremely versatile and dynamic, lending a nervous edge to certain tracks (like the anxious and jittery “Dilaudid”) and giving others a softly yearning accompaniment (such as in the subtly beautiful closer “Pale Green Things”).
Compositionally, the songs showcase the Mountain Goats finding and maintaining a comfortable groove, utilizing sparse percussion work, touches of bouncy piano, and even the occasional mandolin flourish. Opener “You or Your Memory” is carried along on softly shuffling drums, a muted acoustic, and a gently sustained piano, setting a nicely subdued backdrop for a sadly squalid evening spent in front of a mirror with “St. Joseph’s baby aspirin / Bartles and Jaymes / And you, or your memory.” The following track “Broom People” employs the same instruments to achieve a different dynamic; it sets a slow build-up for Darnielle as he describes the environment that fostered the dramatic theme of the album, an environment that spurred him to “Write good reasons to freeze to death / in [his] spiral-ring notebook.”
“Broom People” is immediately followed by the wonderful “This Year,” a peppy and upbeat number detailing the joy of leaving behind a broken home and driving towards the “good things ahead.” While the sentiment is ostensibly tempered by the “cavalcade of anger and fear” brought upon by his stepfather, the oddly rousing chorus says otherwise, as Darnielle proclaims in a defiantly triumphant voice that “I am going to make it / through this year / if it kills me.” Similarly, “Up the Wolves” finds Darnielle swearing that “it’s gonna take you people years / To recover from all the damage” to a cheery major chord progression; he uses the old myth of Rome’s founding to great effect during the chorus, as he exultantly declares that “There’s gonna be a party when the wolf comes home.”
But the ghost of his stepfather is inescapable, and he haunts nearly every aspect of The Sunset Tree. His face is seen in the shattered glass and circular figures of “Dance Music,” in the threateningly militant march and animalistic imagery of “Lion’s Teeth,” and in the ardently-strummed guitar and trembling fear of “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod.” And yet, in the end, there is tired resignation, and perhaps even acceptance; the delicate “Love Love Love” conjures King Saul, Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, and Kurt Cobain in an attempt to explain the strangely oppressive relief found in seemingly desperate acts, while the devastatingly poignant closer “Pale Green Things” – propelled by a surprising intricate guitar line and Friedlander’s sterling cello work – seemingly describes Darnielle’s own confused emotions towards hearing news of his stepfather’s death. It’s a touching recollection of what seems to be one of the few somewhat pleasant memories Darnielle has of his stepfather, one that he turns over in his mind “Like a living Chinese finger-trap.”
There are times when The Sunset Tree can be nearly unbearable; the emotions and sentiments expressed are extremely intimate, and it can be extraordinarily uncomfortable to peer so deeply into the life of a performer who once shunned the idea that a song could act as an autobiographical vehicle. However, it is also profoundly stirring, and knowing that there are aspects of the narrative that are actually true only cause the songs to resonate more clearly within the listener. Affecting, sad, and catchy as hell, The Sunset Tree is one of the most rewarding albums in the Mountain Goats’ oeuvre; while those hoping for Darnielle’s return to the lo-fi grind of his early works will be sorely disappointed, others will find this album to be a worthwhile excursion into what is perhaps the most interesting phase of his years-long career.