The Sunset Tree

Sometimes songs swell up inside with buoyant bursts of soul-succoring solace. Others are much more afflicting things, all barbs and stinging needles. The Sunset Tree by The Mountain Goats is a work almost entirely of this later and more lacerating songcraft. Starkly confessional, it is an album of anthems for the abused and all-but-lost.

Dedicated to his stepfather, The Sunset Tree documents main Mountain Goat John Darnielle’s adolescence of abuse at the hands of a man too tortured to refrain from recreating his own inherited hell. A spectral figure from the first cut, he haunts each and every song. Roaring through “Lion’s Teeth” and landing blows in “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” his beastly presence drives Darnielle into the reckless caresses of “Broom People” and the drug-driven desperation of “Dilaudid.” From the foreboding tones of a treated piano through “Love Love Love” on into the too difficultly dispensed with memories of “Pale Green Things,” he remains lurking low even in more measured and mature reflections towards the record’s end. Through the threat of violence to the act itself and its long-lingering aftereffects, his stepfather is inescapably ominous.

As unfortunate as these experiences may be, it is Darnielle’s skill as a writer that makes their rendering so readily affecting. Honing his craft on a body of work that’s more fiction than firsthand, he applies his same sensibilities to these autobiographical pieces.

Imagery and realism compete and often collide. Taking on an appropriately animal form in “Lion’s Teeth,” the bellicose stepfather battles with Darnielle on the driveway. With “Up the Wolves” Darnielle makes metaphorical pleas for intervention as he cries out to his wolf-mother before breaking down into a Romulus-resembling rage. Each image emerges as the clear product of careful and considered construction, a trademark of Darnielle’s deftly deliberate style.

His command of descriptive detail is on full display as well. “Broom People” suggests something amiss by listing off a common set of features from Darnielle’s childhood home. From the “all sorts of junk in the unattached spare room” to the “white carpet thick with cat hair,” he describes a scene that leads him to “write down good reasons to freeze to death” and take a lover as a means of escape. Confronting the violence he grew up into more directly with “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” he recalls the “smothering waves” or his stepfather’s “thickening hand.”

These illustrative flourishes make for vivid scenes and sequences made all that much more striking by Darnielle’s delivery. While his trembling tenor has always held its own through innumerable characters and pretenses, here it rolls out on to tape more radiant and exposed than ever. His voice is always up front giving due focus to his masterful word-working.

While this unyielding concentration on Darnielle emphasizes the album’s greatest strength, it also yields its only weakness. The accompaniment is all quite competent but very little of it stands out as unusually good. The grinding cello of “Dilaudid” and the percussive propulsion of “This Year” are two of the very few tracks that maintain any identity of their own apart from the lyrics.

Producer John Vanderslice remains uncharacteristically unobtrusive, confining the arrangements to their supporting roles. The greatest casualty here is Peter Hughes’ bass, with Vanderslice castrating otherwise buoyant lines leaving only a hazy whisper. The end result is surely the slickest recording that Darnielle has ever inhabited. Still some sense of longing remains for the hi-fi fuzz and bombast of tracks like “Palmcorder Yanja” from last year’s We Shall All Be Healed.

This one lingering desire is all but off-set by Darnielle’s flawless performance. For a man with an acoustic guitar who has always prided himself on not being one of those men with an acoustic guitar, it is as close as he’s come to a conventional singer-songwriter record. The masterwork he’s cultivated over ten years and 400 songs has finally been realized and its rewards are readily apparent.

Read an interview with John Darnielle and stream four tracks from The Sunset Tree on Amazon

Read more about The Sunset Tree from 4AD

Buy The Sunset Tree from Amazon

Sample more of The Mountain Goats on themountiangoats.net

Check out John Darnielle's music blog, Last Plane to Jakarta

And - for what it's worth - Tallahassee is still one of the greatest break-up records ever. Just listen to "No Children" to hear why.