The Sunset Tree

The Mountain Goats

4AD, 2005

REVIEW BY: Melanie Love


Before 2006’s revelatory Get Lonely, the Mountain Goats (led by the ever-brilliant John Darnielle) examined a different sort of dissolution than the aftermath of a wrenching breakup; instead, The Sunset Tree, released in 2005, explores in vivid, pitch-perfect detail Darnielle’s childhood, namely his relationship with his abusive stepfather (the album itself is dedicated to the man who “made it possible,” followed by an afterword, Never lose hope.) It’s somber stuff throughout, but Darnielle wrestles with the beast of his past with a stunning clarity.

But for all of his devastation here, the instrumentation is surprisingly punchy; it’s never too in your face, but there’s a resolute sense of life simmering beneath the patchwork of memories, whether it’s in the quick-flickering acoustic guitar and lush piano chords of opener “You Or Your Memory” or Darnielle’s crisp vocals lifting clear above the low, crunching guitar riff on “Broom People.”  As always, both cuts are jammed full of striking imagery, such as “Broom People,” which finds the narrator holed up in the unattached spare room, “white carpet piled high with pet hair / half-eaten gallons of ice cream in the freezer” as he “writes down good reasons to freeze to death in my spiral ring notebook,” all the while imagining the girl who takes him out of it all, who makes him feel thriving again: “But in the long tresses of your hair / I am a babbling brook.”

But it’s the next three tracks that take the disc to new heights. “Next Year” finds the narrator proclaiming, “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me,” and matched with energetic guitars and some well-plmy_heart_sings_the_harmony_web_ad_alt_250 aced harmonies, this track is triumphant and breathless. The standout, tightly-coiled “Dilaudid” comes next, all churning nervousness and achingly lovely, precise imagery throughout. “If we live to see the other side of this / I will remember your kiss, so do it with your mouth open / And take your foot off the brake, for Christ’s sake,” Darnielle sputters out, the strings backing him ratcheting towards the song’s close. Meanwhile, the two-minute “Dance Music” initially feels a little throwaway after the one-two punch of the previous cuts, but the sheer jauntiness in the face of stuff like “You’re the last best thing I got going / But then the special secret sickness starts to eat through you / What am I supposed to do?” makes this one another triumph.

The sole issue with The Sunset Tree is that it can feel patchwork-y at times -- which does make sense, seeing as that its capturing memories and mood more than it’s trying to tell a linear story, but it doesn’t make for the most unified listen. Some songs get lost in the shuffle, buried behind some better-sketched moments. “Up The Wolves” feels like it’s missing the raw nerves of previous material, while “Dinu Lipatti’s Bones” is a lo-fi mumble centered around the image of the narrator hiding away in a house built out of Dinu Lipatti’s bones (Lipatti was a Romanian pianist whose career was ended by Hodgkin’s disease when he was 33), but it is too obtuse to really resonate as much.   

Next up, though, the throbbing, vicious energy of “Lion’s Teeth” reclaims the lost momentum, fueled by alternately sawing and soaring strings, machine-like drums, and the apropos metaphor of the narrator yanking a tooth out of the lion’s mouth: “There’s no good way to end this, anyone can see / There’s this great big you, and little old me / And we hold on / For dear life, we hold on.”

The next few tracks see things spiraling out of control, full of nervous guitars and wailing vocals (“Magpie”) and haunting scenes of his stepfather’s reckless rage (“Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod”). But where The Sunset Tree finally ends up is a more subdued, resigned place. First comes the cool, calm “Love Love Love” with its spare accompaniment and the lovely sentiment, ” Some things you’ll do for money and some you’ll do for fun / But the things you do for love are going to come back to you one by one.” Closer “Pale Green Things” follows, finding Darnielle and his stepfather one last time watching horses race, the memory he returns to “like a living Chinese finger trap.” It’s a stunning end, providing a fitting narrative arc and, above all, some sense of resolution. Memory lives on and never fades, as Darnielle depicts throughout this moving, haunting disc, but there is still a sense of reckoning here, of moving beyond and above it all and emerging -- finally -- triumphant.

Rating: B+

User Rating: Not Yet Rated



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