On The Sunset Tree
, John Darnielle retains his reputation as the crown prince of salvation through song, exorcising demons (real and imagined) over a waltzing set of adjunct cadences and rifling strings -- a white-hot torrent of regret and distressing catharsis. His battered acoustic guitar struggles to keep pace with his memories, only occasionally outracing his broken tales of battered childhood and tumultuous, booze-soaked adolescence. Few singer/songwriters seem as comfortable laying themselves bare as Darnielle, whose cringe-worthy tirades are almost as painful to listen to as they must have been to experience.
The thorny, ever-changing relationship between Darnielle and his outwardly abusive stepfather seems to be The Sunset Tree's most pervasive lyrical influence, at one moment sending the Mountain Goats leader into spastic fits of adolescent rage ("This Year"), then plunging him deep into pools of remorse and sadness ("Pale Green Things") after he hears of the man's death. Darnielle has vilified the man to no end, but that's not the limit of our experience; we also share the thousand sleepless nights Darnielle spent expecting the worst, only to awake to creased bedsheets and a healthy disgust for a father figure unfairly imposed upon him. Though he has spoken of the man before, he's never done so in such vivid, glowering glimpses.
The biggest change this time out is the music's almost ebullient tone -- even when Darnielle seems to be at his most dire, lyrically speaking. "Dance Music" juxtaposes domestic violence with Spanish-flavored guitars and a sprightly cadence as Darnielle ruefully recounts tales of a life in San Luis Obispo. "Dilaudid"'s lilting incantations are set to haunting Wagnerian strings as Darnielle's soft cry is left to float in its suppurating ether, and "Love Love Love"'s ethereal folk leanings are breathlessly beautiful in a manner befitting Donovan or the Incredible String Band.
The Sunset Tree feels like Darnielle's most personal record to date, and it's certainly his most immediately accessible, musically speaking. Chances are good that both of these evolutionary steps are completely by design; while some part of Darnielle is still the fucked-up teenager who used to punch the video game machine and come home stinking of Wild Turkey, the adult he's become seems all too willing to remove himself from the equation, leaving other panicky and embittered ghosts where his once stood. With Darnielle, you never know exactly what's real or what's imagined, and it makes for an absolutely compelling experience.