Music Reviews
The Sunset Tree

Mountain Goats The Sunset Tree

(4AD) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

I had a feeling I'd really like this album when I previewed the first song and heard the line "St Joseph's Baby Aspirin, Bartles and Jaymes, and you". That just about says it all. Some sort of hidden truth about the collision of childhood innocence and grown-up angst that afflict the young adult resides in that line. The Sunset Tree, or more aptly the Noon Tree, revolves around a young man trying to outgrow, or outrun, his troubled early years. Will he succeed, and should you care? Maybe, and hell yeah!

This is the kind of record that sneaks up on you. It's quiet, yet frequently troubled and jittery. The arrangements are understated, yet emphatic and deliberate. John Darnielle's vocals are now sweet and vulnerable, now panic-stricken and unyielding. You get the idea. You can half listen to The Sunset Tree across the room and have no idea what riches are right in front of you.

Musically, The Sunset Tree is tasteful, tuneful, even pretty, but the real draw here is what we used to call "the words". Darnielle spews out a vivid image or an ironic musing every third line of virtually every song. Citing examples is like fishing in a bathtub so I'll just highlight some of the best. In Dance Music he's 5 or 6 years old and "in the living room watching the Watergate hearings", as his stepfather abuses his mother. He finds solace in the little record player on the floor and discovers "what the volume knob is for". On Broom People, he sees "white carpet thick with pet hair" and "half-eaten gallons of ice cream in the freezer", painting pictures of a house and a life in disarray. I could go on, but better you should be surprised by the lyrical twists and turns.

The evil stepfather is the looming presence over what amounts to an exorcism in digital sound. As I've said in other reviews, I don't know if the details here are autobiographical or even true in the historical sense, and I really don't care. The question is - do they speak to universal truths? In this, Darnielle mostly succeeds. The singer's response to the violent man robbing his childhood of innocence rings genuine. The ever present fear, the understandable withdrawal, and ultimately the defiance and hope, may be clichéd psychological truisms, but that doesn't make them any less true. The intensity of the performances, and the clever wordplay showing a mind at work, make us care.

Minor grievances? Occasionally Darnielle's pretensions get the best of him, like in Magpie when he warns that the titular bird "comes at noon". Huh? I need to think way too much to figure out what he's talking about, so I'm not going to try. And though Up the Wolves is one of the best tunes on the album, is he actually invoking Romulus and Remus to tell his story? Nevermind. There's so much here to enjoy, we can tolerate the occasional lyrical overreach. Now I think I need to explore the Goats back catalog a bit. Always a good sign.