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+ Various Artists - Tibetan And Bhutanese Instrumental And Folk Music, Volume 2
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+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #2)
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The Mountain Goats
The Sunset Tree

Listening to John Darnielle's lyrics, it's hard not to imagine the Mountain Goat himself inhabiting his most triumphant and most heartbreaking songs. There are motels filled with early evening sunlight, slow-motion glances from women you're in the process of running away with, dogs rolling around playfully in the grass, guns tenderly removed from strong hands, magnolia blossoms, and a permeating sense of escape tempered with a longing for home, whether that home be stationary or temporal or human. There's adventure and travel and romance, danger and family and fresh vegetables. A mythical character emerges from Darnielle's songs, crawling from in between the lines, reaching maturity in the spaces between viciously strummed chords, and living out its fate in the ghostly boombox hisses that both mangle and augment its story.

But to hear him tell it, this character has almost nothing to do with Darnielle himself. Hard to believe, of course, as the Mountain Goats' songs are some of the most vividly personal of the last decade. How can occurrences so rich with detail and characters so deftly drawn be conjured up from some Midwesterner's imagination? Novelists do it all the time... but it takes keen insight and a knowledge of narrative boundaries to put it to music and make it sound believable. And the Mountain Goats have been doing it for years, until now.

Darnielle is not a typical songwriter (or a typical writer, for that matter). His influences are both numerous and nil — there are pop-music touch points for the kind of songs Darnielle writes, but certainly nobody in pop music does precisely what the Mountain Goats do. A certain amount of alchemy is necessary to turn the same well-worn chords into so many different songs with so many different meanings. Darnielle's musical trajectory, until the recent addition over the last two albums of full-band arrangements, has been a very slightly upward-moving line. It's no surprise that it's taken Darnielle a good 20 releases to get around to creating a fully autobiographical work.

This album — The Sunset Tree — is enlightening and frustrating. It finds Darnielle foraging through personal grief and pain for something that doesn't completely come to him at the end. The Mountain Goats' last full-length, We Shall All Be Healed, was a photo-book of Darnielle's third decade, cobbled together primarily through hazy recollections and a writer's ability to fill in missing details. On …Healed, Darnielle treated himself like just another character in one of his songs, a guy whose troubles and friends and addictions straddle a line between tragedy and farce. But on The Sunset Tree, it's Darnielle's difficult duty to resist assigning a weightier meaning to his main character, regardless of whether that character deserves it or not.

Like many earlier Mountain Goats records, The Sunset Tree plays like a photo album, with specific memories highlighted and remembered. Most of them are bad — an abusive stepfather, domestic violence — tempered with good — playing "video games in a drunken haze," driving fast with a new girlfriend. This new autobiographical challenge finds Darnielle stumbling over emotions he'd normally capture perfectly in one line, like in "Love Love Love," when Kurt Cobain's suicide is rather clumsily invoked towards the end of an otherwise successful song about personal sacrifice. It's difficult for an artist to switch gears after years of doing things one way, and though some of Darnielle's stories feel lifted from a teenager's diary, it's because they are, and there would be no other way for him to appropriately present the inherent pain and trouble of his experiences honestly.

The obvious parallel to this new method of songwriting is Darnielle's recent acceptance of a broader musical palette for his songs. Tallahassee and We Shall All Be Healed both employed legitimate musicians playing instruments in real studios, a novelty that has not worn off, and continues to improve with each album. Darnielle's voice — frank, unembellished, wildly nasal, and frequently atonal — sounds better when it's mic'ed properly, and it's allowed him to plumb emotional depths heretofore unplumbed. Check out the pained, stretched cry at the end of "Broom People": "In the long tresses of your hair, I am a babbling brooooooooooooooooook!" Or the desperate "For Christ's sake!" that brings the cello-only "Dilaudid" to a close. There's a parallel between the incessant intensity of Erik Friedlander's expert cello playing and Darnielle's almost gasping delivery of the lyrics that shows how far Darnielle has been able to push the Mountain Goats formula into new territories.

The conversational tone ("All right I'm on Johnson Avenue in San Luis Obispo and I'm five years old or six maybe" from "Dance Music"), the proclamations ("It's gonna take you people years to recover from all the damage!" from "Up the Wolves"), the connection between fate and our actions — it's all here, like it is in our copies of All Hail West Texas or Tallahassee, but there's something else, too. I think it's sadness — a sadness that, unlike the melancholy in "Elijah" or "Source Decay" or any story-song Darnielle has ever sung or screamed or whispered, resonates in an uncomfortable way. Not because the first-person recollections of abuse are shocking — that's unfortunately nothing that we haven't heard before. It's uncomfortable because it's John Darnielle, the tight-lipped, closed-off John Darnielle, and we're getting a glimpse of all this stuff we've never seen before, all this stuff that he's purposely hidden from us before, and it's new and weird and not entirely pleasant. But ultimately the album is bolstered by the risks he takes, and though it trips a bit and never quite achieves the direct vision of previous efforts, it's rewarding nonetheless, for the perspective it brings to Darnielle's body of work.

by Neal Block

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