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Pain Management

 

The Mountain Goats: The Sunset Tree

4AD, 2005

Rating: 4.1

 

Posted: April 25, 2005

By Laurence Station

John Darnielle’s last album, We Shall All Be Healed, was his most nakedly autobiographical, dealing with people the artist has known, and assorted unpleasant situations encountered before and around the period when making albums under The Mountain Goats moniker was more hobby than fulltime gig. By comparison, Darnielle’s latest release, The Sunset Tree, makes We Shall All Be Healed look fully clothed. In documenting life in the California home he grew up in, Darnielle has crafted his most personal and emotionally wrenching work.

At its core, The Sunset Tree is a concept album about abuse and escape. Most of the abuse comes courtesy of a brutish stepfather who apparently was an equal-opportunity dispenser of verbal and emotional punishment (neither Darnielle’s mother nor his sister are spared). The escape part is, unsurprisingly, via music -- young Darnielle clings to his record player like a life preserver. The counterbalancing of such polar opposites is Darnielle’s great accomplishment on Sunset Tree. There is catharsis here, but it's in the service of art, not the other way around. Darnielle prefers to celebrate surviving this time rather than force the listener to wallow in a self-pitying expose of tortured youth.

Sunset Tree opens with the table-setting “You or Your Memory,” a song about checking into a motel room and staring down one’s demons. Darnielle’s weapons of choice in this confrontation are Bartles & Jaymes wine coolers and St. Joseph's baby aspirin. Darnielle’s recollection of events, however, is anything but a narcotized blur. If anything, it’s shockingly clear-eyed and detailed. “Broom People” lists an assortment of objects in his childhood home, from random junk in the garage to “half-eaten gallons of ice cream in the freezer.” “Dilaudid” effectively employs a racing cello (compliments of Erik Friedlander) to accentuate a passionate backseat encounter as intense and immediate as the song’s analgesic-inspired title is clinical and anesthetized.

The album’s strongest moments come when Darnielle confronts the ghost of his stepfather (who passed away in December 2003; the album’s lyrics came pouring forth shortly afterward). “This Year” moves from the exuberance of cruising in a car to meet a girl (“broken house behind me and good things ahead”) to returning home and finding his angry stepdad waiting for him in the driveway (“the scene ends badly, as you might imagine, in a cavalcade of anger and fear”). Even the hook ("I am going to make it through this year, if it kills me") neatly juggles an incongruous mix of optimism and doubt. Darnielle plays “Dance Music” to drown out the sounds of his stepfather yelling at his mother. On “Lion's Teeth,” young John futilely stands up to the short-tempered bully of the household.

But Sunset Tree’s most stinging moment of clarity, and one of the finest songs Darnielle has yet written, is “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?” Accompanied by acoustic guitar and a deliberately menacing backbeat, Darnielle warily observes, “You are sleeping off your demons, when I come home.” Terrified of waking his stepfather, the singer retreats to the sanctuary of his room, where he is the “last of a lost civilization.” And when the stepfather awakens and the inevitable beating comes, Darnielle’s more concerned with protecting his precious stereo than shielding his body from the hail of blows. Here Darnielle nails a moment in time that's so honest and terrifying that you’re fearful for his safety, despite knowing he survived the incident and outlived his tormentor.

Darnielle loses his footing by trying a little too hard to shoehorn literary or cultural references into the material. From Romulus and Remus in “Up the Wolves” to Crime and Punishment’s Raskolnikov in “Love Love Love” (which manages to work in doomed figures like King Saul and Kurt Cobain, among others). Renowned Romanian classical pianist Dinu Lipatti and reggae great Dennis Brown are name checked in song titles. And the album’s title is derived from a a line in a 19th century religious song, by way of Samuel Butler's novel The Way of All Flesh. It’s not that Darnielle comes off as pretentious (he capably uses the references); the album simply doesn’t need the extraneous citations to be effective. It’s the private reflections that carry the most weight, not peripheral observations about Sonny Liston rubbing tiger balm into a boxing glove.

Despite such self-conscious window dressing, Sunset Tree is Darnielle’s finest hour. (John Vanderslice’s appropriately reserved production deserves special mention, as well.) If Darnielle had made this album in his early twenties, without the distance of time and rumination, it most likely would have been unbearably excruciating. Decades after the events described, the emotional tumult still resonates. But it's wisely tempered with a measured dose of maturity that comes with growing older and understanding that the model upbringing is more sitcom myth than conventional reality.

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 Ratings Key:
 5.0: A classic
 4.0-4.9: Stellar work
 3.0-3.9: Worthwhile effort
 2.0-2.9: Nothing special
 1.1-1.9: Pretty bad
 0.0-1.0: Total disaster

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