Review Summary: The Mountain Goats, John Darnielle's folk rock project, use "The Sunset Tree" to tell tales painfully familiar to some, with a nostalgia taken from the distressed mind of a teenager.
John Darnielle is a master of folk rock because he writes with a heart filled with memory and attention to detail, sings with earnest innocence, and plays the guitar to direct rather than accompany the music. Darnielle is
The Mountain Goats. Before “The Sunset Tree,” his more poignant story was hardly stressed. “The Sunset Tree” is about your abusive childhood, your stereo offering refuge, and your challenge to the universe of your existence. Darnielle offers an audio autobiography to help sort through the madness, including his own distressed childhood with an abusive stepfather. His hopes and fears are told through the innocent eyes of a child, through the menacingly curious teeth of a teenager, and through the worn skin of a veteran of the game called life. “The Sunset Tree” flourishes and takes the listener to the frontiers of folk rock because with every intricate feature, another nail is uprooted from your insecure coffins thought shut for good.
Darnielle’s childhood was beaten into submission and fright by a stepfather who lived a lifetime too long. “The Sunset Tree” demonstrates that there was little sanctuary for Darnielle, but where he found his release he captured each day like it was his last and lived for moments that would one day be able to brighten the eyes on his grandchildren. The intensity of the album is aggravated by violins in a rage. On “Lion’s Teeth” and “Dilaudid,” Darnielle goes through dramatic metaphorical incidents that include emotional struggles with his stepfather and an urgency to live, respectively. “Lion’s Teeth” is the tense struggle in which Darnielle challenges the Lion by reaching into its mouth and gripping one of its teeth as he cares to “hold on for dear life” during his challenge of the Lion. “Dilaudid” stresses the intensity with a consistently deep violin tone sawing through the calm from the previous songs. He pleas over the construction “so kiss me with your mouth open / and take your foot off of the brake / for Christ’s sake.” Songs like “Dilaudid” occur throughout the album and place importance on realizing the magnificence of the escape from troubles that seem so stifling. It’s the escape that can only be felt during a long drive with your teenage girlfriend on a road unfamiliar or lying in her bedroom while you eye the clock on her dresser.
The juxtaposition of safety through music and the violence surrounding Darnielle’s childhood is conveyed remarkably through the cheery “Dance Music.” It is frighteningly cheery with light guitar strumming and piano but convincingly so because it is told through the eyes of a child who is more worried about losing their stereo to an angry outburst rather than the “strong and thick veined hand” as described on “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod.” The end of the album smoothes out the messages and stories Darnielle has made known. “Love Love Love” and “Pale Green Things” are serene moral tales. “Love...” ensures the listener that pursuits through love are the ones that are the most fulfilling and provide the most return. The closer “Pale Green Things” provides a fitting reminiscence of Darnielle’s father, now passed on. When you remember those close figures in life that treated you so badly, their deaths often bring upon a happier memory than your worst moments. It is a recognizable feeling that has the ability to hit very close to home.
“The Sunset Tree” does not tell the listener how to live but it demonstrates solace in apparently hopeless situations. Darnielle’s story can be absorbed with empathy in various ways, whether the listener has grown up experiencing an abusive childhood, or needs music to get through the next year or just the next five minutes. With the beauty of “The Sunset Tree” you’ll find equal refuge from chaos experienced today or during your impenetrable youth.