Since releasing his first cassette in 1991, John Darnielle, a singer/songwriter who records as the Mountain Goats, has authored more than 400 songs, most of which are better than any number of songs you’re likely to hear. Don’t beat yourself up for overlooking his brilliance, though. For more than a decade, Darnielle hid his light under the requisite indie-rock bushel, yelping into boom boxes, fetishizing tape hiss, and cultivating a small but insanely devoted following of fellow freaks. (He also inadvertently made the world safe for Conor Oberst, but we won’t hold that against him.) However, beginning with 2002’s Tallahassee, his first outing for the UK-based 4AD label, Darnielle has been moving away from this defiantly lo-fi aesthetic toward something that, if not exactly Clear Channel-friendly, involves recording at actual studios with actual musicians and actual engineers; whether this concession will endear him to mainstream music fans remains to be seen, but it certainly removes the biggest obstacle.
The Sunset Tree, the follow-up to last year’s excellent We Shall All Be Healed, also marks the continuation of his recent autobiographical leanings. Although Darnielle once disdained the reductive narcissism of confessional singer/songwriters — those embarrassingly earnest soul-barers for whom the first-person pronoun is an end in itself — he has come to embrace the creative possibilities in his own life story. The Sunset Tree is dedicated both to Darnielle’s late stepfather and to survivors of abuse, a connection that becomes uncomfortably obvious as the song cycle unfolds. If the prospect of 13 songs about suffering at the hands of a sadistic patriarch fills you with dread, you’re not alone: Child abuse, after all, is not only depressing but also depressingly commonplace. Every victim’s pain is special and important and pitiable, but no one, unfortunately, wants to hear about it.
Luckily, Darnielle is a genius, and geniuses always find a way to make us listen. In language that is plain, idiomatic, and unafraid of the occasional heartfelt cliché, he marshals a wealth of specific detail to impart universal truths. Rather than condemn his tormentor and wallow in self-pity, he creates a meticulously nuanced context in which his individual suffering is a metaphor for the human condition and a touchstone for his artistic development. The wryly titled “Dance Music” pairs Darnielle’s plangent bleat with a cheerful Charlie Brown-ish piano to demonstrate the redemptive power of music: “I’m in the living room watching the Watergate hearings/while my stepfather yells at my mother, launches a glass straight at her head/and I dash upstairs to take cover, leaning close to my little record player on the floor/So this is what the volume knob’s for.” On “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” a teenage Darnielle accidentally awakens his stepfather and faces the consequences: “And then I’m awake and I’m guarding my face, hoping you don’t break my stereo/Because it’s the one thing that I couldn’t live without/And so I think about that, and then I sort of black out.”
The 13 songs follow a nonlinear but emotionally accurate trajectory, depicting the narrator’s movement from fear and rage to various forms of escapism and, finally, in the gorgeous closing diptych, to a kind of forgiveness. On the delicate “Love Love Love,” Darnielle somehow ties together Raskolnikov, Kurt Cobain, and the New Testament, distilling all of the allusions into a message that’s both perfectly obvious and unassailably true: “Some things you’ll do for money, some you’ll do for fun/But the things you do for love are going to come back to you one by one.” Despite its horrific subject matter, The Sunset Tree is an act of love. Let’s hope it comes back to him.