It’s a tough racket writing a review of The Mountain Goats latest masterpiece The Sunset Tree, mostly because, quite frankly, I respect head Goat John Darnielle too much to write a fat load of bogus assessment, to say nothing of any kind of speculation as to what he and his work are all about. Add to that the fact that he writes damned near the best music reviews on the ‘net, and I’ll readily admit that his shadow is long.
More importantly, though, there’s a forthright clarity in Darnielle’s writing and voice that render talking much about it not only superfluous, but nearly just wrong: it’s not something you need to pick apart – you just have to let it in.
Here’s what I know about context: although every Mountain Goats song is loaded with a richness of detail and emotional verity that makes it seem lifted directly from life, they are mostly fictional song cycles, peopled by characters as throughly and vividly drawn as any novelist’s. Last year’s saga of doomed tweakers, We Shall All Be Healed, and The Sunset Tree are his first full-on forays into the autobiographical. The Sunset Tree digs through an adolescence in San Luis Obispo with an abusive stepfather. Last year, Darnielle’s stepfather died, and these songs came out.
Although his is a heavy subject, Darnielle has an unerring ability to be whole-hearted and emotional in a clean, unsentimental way. He addresses the demons with a direct truthfulness and sense of context that allows the songs to transcend any sense of the cringingly topical that might diminish them, or distance us from the heart of his narrative.
Asked if singing these songs made him sad, Darnielle recently told mlive.com “I do most of my freaking out when I’m writing. When it comes time to sing them, it’s a whole different matter. All this stuff happened so long ago… Re-inhabiting that younger man’s mind is like method acting; I feel it, but there’s still the feeling-much-better-now-thanks adult lurking behind.”
Which, along with his mad skillz, is it in a nutshell. The kid on the record is in the wringer, but the man remembering him has made peace. He’s well and flourishing, and he’s made a heart-crushingly beautiful record. It’s that sense of perspective that makes The Sunset Tree like a window into all the things that are strongest and most beautiful in the human heart, but without any false sense of it being bigger than life. He lets the stories tell themselves in quotidian particulars, and washes nothing clean. His narratives are full of real ugliness, real beauty and real courage.
Darnielle’s singularly expressive voice and guitar, accompanied in days of yore only by Casio beats and recorded lo-fi into a boom box, are shored-up perfectly here with empathetic production by longtime collaborator John Vanderslice, fellow goat Peter Hughes, the inestimable Franklin Bruno, whose piano stylings know no equal, and cellist Erik Freidlander, adding perfectly calibrated insistence and sadness.
Should you do yourself the enormous favor of hearing this record, there are some rough moments ahead, but fare forward in the knowledge that The Sunset Tree ends gorgeously with my new favorite song by the Goats, “Love, Love, Love”, which includes well-nigh the only time I have ever heard Kurt Cobain’s death marked without wanting to karate chop some cheap bastard into a million pieces; and “Pale Green Things”, a song so full of compassion, forgiveness and real grace that I feel nothing so much as gratitude that I’ve been allowed to hear it.
Thanks again, John.
On another note: The Mountain Goats are on tour, and John Darnielle is a performer of special magnificence. If they’re coming to your town and you don’t go see them, you are totally nuts.