86/100 — The Mountain Goats — The Sunset Tree (2005)

On The Mountain Goats’ 9th studio album The Sunset Tree, John Darnielle, the band’s singer/songwriter/mastermind reaches a new peak in his wave of deeply personal, strikingly particular, and emotionally rich songwriting. What do I mean by “strikingly particular?” This is how the album opens:

I checked into a bargain priced room on La Cienaga
Gazed out through the curtains of the parking lot
Walked down to the corner store just before nightfall in my bare feet
Black tarry asphalt, soft and hot
And when I came back I spread out my supplies
On the counter by the sink
I looked myself right in the eyes
St. Joseph’s baby aspirin
Bartles and Jaymes
And you or your memory
Basically the John Oliver of indie rock.

Every detail paints a picture and draws me in to a miniature world, almost like a less whimsical Wes Anderson set. You know everything you need to know about the emotional state of the protagonist before the end of the first chorus. Every song has these details.

“Broom People” reveals the album’s overarching theme. It’s a semi-autobiographical exploration of Darnielle’s experience growing up with an abusive step-father. He expresses the loneliness of “friends who don’t have a clue/ Well-meaning teachers” while he “write[s] down good reasons to freeze to death.” Only his girlfriend knows what’s going on and Darnielle’s somewhat strident voice bursts with emotion as he blurts out “But in the long tresses of your hair/ I am a BABBLING BROOK.”

And yet, amidst the despair, there are moments of resistance, and even redemption. “Dance Music” is a cheery little tune about being five years old and cranking up the radio to drown out the anger and violence downstairs. “This Year” with it’s rousing chorus of “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me,” (which explodes in live performances, let me tell you) shows how the dysfunction spreads but also how resistance, even for a moment can bring hope. It also has another verse worth quoting in full:

And then Cathy showed up
And we hung out
Trading swigs from a bottle
All bitter and clean
Locking eyes
Holding hands
Twin high maintenance machines

The arrangements on these songs are stunning in places. “Dilaudid” with it’s intense strings. “Dinu Lipatti’s Bones” with it’s deep and bright electric guitar and somber piano chords. “Magpie” with it’s workingman’s mandolin. And then, there’s the heartbreaking “Love Love Love” which seems to tackle the difficulty of how inexplicable true love can be, and how frustrating it can be when it exists concurrently with hate. Here there is just an acoustic guitar and later some sparkling harmonics and tinkling piano notes which shine like spilled champagne.

Finally, on hearing of his stepfathers death, Darnielle can’t help but be flooded with some of the few tender moments he got to share with the man who caused him so much pain. The elegiac “Pale Green Things” is heartbreaking, and a testament to Darnielle’s brilliance as a writer and expresser of those emotions we sometimes can’t tap for ourselves. By focusing on the mundane particulars, he frees our emotions to flow out in between them.

Favourite Tracks: “Dance Music”, “This Year”, “Love Love Love”

Least Favourite Track: “Magpie”