I don't know how to get into this review. John Darnielle is a wordsmith of a tremendous nature and I know that I cannot describe his music in words as eloquent. I will try my best to describe his new album without drooling all over myself. Yes, I am obsessed with the Mountain Goats.
For those who don't know the Mountain Goats, their songs from 1992-2004 were fictional. They were 2-minute narratives recorded, usually onto a boombox, using such detail and sung with such passion that you could not help but connect and feel for the characters. Themes like traveling appeared often in the "Going to‚?¶" song series, and some characters reappeared, such as in the doomed couple in the "Alpha" song series. But after 2003's Tallahassee wrapped up the "Alpha" couple's story, Darnielle started focusing on his own life's stories. 2004's We Shall All Be Healed dealt with some sleazy characters he knew earlier in his life, and now he takes a look at himself. His stepfather and former abuser died in the winter of 2003, and this event started him on his way to examining and telling the story of his childhood and teen years, to later become The Sunset Tree.
On label 4AD's website, Darnielle explains: "I've put off writing about this stuff for years," he says, "because I'm a little squeamish about milking my own trauma for art, and getting good songs rather than cry-fests from these experiences is a really excruciating process. And also because my stepfather was still alive." It is refreshing to hear something like that from a musician in this world of overdramatic teenage emo-rockers singing of their broken hearts. And here is a guy who actually does has a good story to tell, and has the narrative capacities to do it well.
Gigantic introduction aside, this is a great album. Not perfect, but great. I feel the overall sound is closer to Tallahassee than We Shall All Be Healed because it gravitates toward the gentler approach, while the last album was full of drums and distorted vocals. Only three tracks on this album utilize a full drum kit, and even then it tends to be subdued. Piano plays a prominent role, and cello is abundant and often at the forefront.
Like any good batting order, 3-4-5 on this album packs the biggest punch. "This Year" tells the best story on the album, about a teenage Darnielle out drinking with his girlfriend, returning home knowing full well that his stepdad will be waiting there full of rage. "I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me" really says it all here. "Dilaudid" takes a much darker tone in a completely cello-driven tune. It is actually the only Mountain Goats song I can think of that has no guitar whatsoever (minus of course his Casio tendencies). "Dance Music" tells of John's childhood escape: music. In the sunniest melody possible, Darnielle tells of one particular incident
I'm in the living room watching the Watergate hearings / While my stepfather yells at my mother / Launches a glass across the room straight at her head / And I dash upstairs to take cover / Lean in close to my little record player on the floor / So, this is what the volume knob's for / I listen to dance music, dance music."This theme reappears again on "Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod." Here Darnielle wakes his stepfather up with his music, and as he is receiving a beating, all he is thinking is that he hopes his stereo doesn't get broken.
Another favorite of mine is "Lion's Teeth," a lurching, evil tune pushed along by the tom-filled beat and electric guitar. It's the most rocking song on the album and contains the scariest of the stories. I'm trying to piece together the story between the facts and the metaphors, but it seems it is about a young Darnielle going on the offensive against his sleeping stepfather, after which he realizes he is in way over his head and that "There is no good way to end this." "Love Love Love" picks up the later part of the album with one of the cheerier numbers and a great melody.
After so many albums and an estimated 400 songs written about fictional characters, it is weird to be able to picture Darnielle himself, in a younger form, in these situations. I think this will be a dividing point among fans, but personally I am all for it and I think it gives the stories a greater impact. Musically, I don't think this his most consistent album, with the second half dragging a bit. I also liked the more rocking tunes on We Shall All Be Healed and wish this one had a few more songs like those. This score is given in comparison to older Mountain Goats releases and not as a flat score, because while I give it only an 8, it will definitely find its way into my end of the year list.