How do you embrace your history? The answer to that question isn’t such a mystery. There are ways to elucidate the plotlines that have been written into your skin. People have been doing it since a caveman named Og scratched his ochre drawings of bison hunts onto his cave wall. We can recreate ourselves for others to see, we can bare our personal demons.
More difficult is escaping the potential others wish to force on you. For the last few decades, critics and fans alike have been searching for the heir to the almost mythical role of musical bard that Bob Dylan single-handedly created. Over the years, many have been proffered for that role, from Billy Bragg to Ryan Adams to Conor Oberst; expectations have risen and waned as a host of potentates have briefly sat on the throne before running from its responsibilities. For the last eleven years, John Darnielle, working under the moniker of the Mountain Goats, has steadily produced a catalog of work nearly unmatched in its lyrical honesty and narrative strength. Perhaps it’s time to for him to try the seat out? Caution: he may not vacate any time soon.
Darnielle has recorded over 400 songs since the release of his first cassette-only set of songs in 1991. Of those songs only a handful have dealt directly with Darnielle’s life, as he instead crafted careful fictions and song cycles that had more in common with literary types like Raymond Carver or F. Scott Fitzgerald. The baggage that comes with the tag of “confessional” singer/songwriter seems to be one that Darnielle has actively avoided, if not scorned. Then in 2004 the Mountain Goats released We Shall All Be Healed, an album that saw Darnielle delving into the bloody realizations of his own past as he revisited a dark period of his life in song, a time littered with the detritus of bad decisions.
As with We Shall All Be Healed and its predecessor, Tallahassee, Darnielle has continued to distance himself from the decidedly lo-fi leanings of his early work. There’s no tape hiss on these songs; instead, Darnielle delves deeper into the sounds of strings, piano, organ, mandolin, and light percussion, and adding acclaimed cellist Erik Friedlander for much of The Sunset Tree while keeping the excellent John Vanderslice as producer. As with so much of Darnielle’s catalog, the music—staccato bursts of strumming, hyperactive assaults on the strings—seems an accent that serves to elevate his lyrics; and the lyrics on The Sunset Tree are by far his most intensely personal to date, one-upping and expanding the frank recollections of We Shall All Be Healed.
The Sunset Tree sprang from the death of Darnielle’s stepfather. The writing began while the Mountain Goats toured Europe; Darnielle found the beginnings of these intensely personal songs in dressing rooms, tour vans, and hotels. The resulting songs are simply some of the best in his already impressive catalog. Darnielle pushes his nasal squeak of a voice into some dark memories, ties it to the hurtled glasses of scotch, the confused girlfriends, the comfort of siblings and, ultimately, to resolution. The album has both the feel and tone of doors being thrown open, the discomfit of light burning into ill-acclimated retinas, there are visions here that Darnielle did not expect, conclusions that he thought unreachable while his stepfather was alive. The material is fascinating in the car crash manner (you should look away, but you just can’t) and it is rough going at times. Darnielle’s stepfather’s presence is everywhere: hurtling glasses at Darnielle’s mother (“Dance Music”), rousing him from headphone-induced revelry for a beating (“Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod”), passed out in the driveway (“Lions Teeth”) or on the couch. The interesting thing about The Sunset Tree is the unexpected hope that Darnielle seeds into the final songs of the album. The last two tracks, “Love Love Love” and “Pale Green Things”, contain the surprisingly adult resignation that comes with the news and eventual acceptance of his stepfather’s death. In particular, “Pale Green Things”—with its gentle accents of cello and Darnielle’s gentle whisper quietly imbued with forgiveness, swept by gentle strings, thoughtful, pensive, and hopeful—is a powerful finish to a set of often bitter memories.
Musically, The Sunset Tree follows the fleshed-out professionalism of We Shall All Be Healed. The Sunset Tree‘s “This Year” or “Dance Music” may well usurp live favorites like “Palmcorder Yajna” as shout-along crowd pleasers. Darnielle’s steady development as a musician conscious of the production values of his songs and how that sound elevates his lyrics continues to rise. While there are no musical revelations on The Sunset Tree when compared to Tallahassee or We Shall All Be Healed, there is a sense of growing confidence. Darnielle is mid-stride in what may well be the most richly rewarding segment of his decade-plus recording career.
The emotions on The Sunset Tree are raw. It’s a testament to Darnielle’s abilities that he reins in those emotions enough to create such a powerful and coherent exhibit of his internal life. Whether Darnielle consciously intends this album to be his introduction to the rarified air of such acclaimed “confessional” singer/songwriters as Tracy Chapman, Elliot Smith, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, and Bob Dylan (there I said it) or not, these names are likely to begin to be mentioned with regularity as Darnielle moves forward.