2005 saw the release of two of the greatest folk albums, not just of that decade, but of any decade – Sufjan Stevens’ Illinois and the Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree, and they could not be any more different. The former allowed personal pathos for the listener through the album’s universal themes of love, of death, of the uselessness of religion in the face of it, of starting over – you didn’t have to be American (let alone Illinoisan) to understand what Sufjan Stevens was singing about. The Sunset Tree is not only musically sparser (though it’s more ornate by the Mountain Goats’ standards), its personal pathos explored through John Darnielle’s personal exorcism. Most of the songs are about his abusive stepfather (who died in 2003), certainly, but his fights aren’t his own – they’re for anyone who’s ever been in a shitty situation and sought escape.
The escape here isn’t the “easy” way out, the common one that most singer/songwriters sing and songwrite about (ie. Elliott Smith). The narrator in “Dance Music” watches as “my stepfather yells at my mother / Launches a glass across the room, straight at her head” and his response is, “I dash upstairs to take cover / Lean in close to my little record player on the floor / So this is what the volume knob’s for / I listen to dance music” and the narrator of “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod” thinks about his stereo while he’s beaten up “because it’s the one thing that I couldn’t live without.” Escapism through music. What we’re all here for, right? The choruses of “This Year” might be the most simultaneously optimistic and depressing one you’ll ever hear in your life, “I am going to make it through this year, if it kills me.”
The album follows suite – it’s never always depressing and yet, it might ironically be more depressing because of it. It’s commonly said that the Mountain Goats are one of the few bands that ought to be appreciated more for their lyrics than their music, so let’s talk about their lyrics. On “Broom People,” among a list of things that you’ll find in Darnielle’s broken home are implicit mentions of depression (“Friends who don’t have a clue / Well-meaning teachers”) and suicide (“I write down good reasons to freeze to death / In my spiral-ring notebook”), but the song ends with its most romantic sentiment, “In the long tresses of your hair / I am a babbling brook.” On “This Year,” as he drives off in search of a physical relationship that’s not physically abusive, he begins “My broken house behind me / And good things ahead” but the song concludes “The scene ends badly as you might imagine / In a cavalcade of anger and fear.” And Darnielle doesn’t paint his stepfather as one-dimensional; he’s made it clear in interviews that though his stepfather beat him and his mother, he still loved them at the end of the day. On closer, “Pale Green Things,” Darnielle suggests that he might have loved him too in the simplest way: “[My sister] told me you how you’d died at last / At last?”
And John Darnielle sings them well. On opener “You or Your Memory,” where Darnielle fights his inner demons with drugs and alcohol, notice how he sings the word “tonight” in the couplet, “Lord, If I make it through tonight / Then I will mend my ways and walk the straight path to the end of my days.” The best moment on the album is on “This Year” when Darnielle screams “A-HA!” triumphantly as his car revs up so he can get away (if only briefly). On “Dilaudid,” he moves from calm (“I will remember this kiss / So do it with your mouth open”) to panicked (“TAKE YOUR FOOT OFF THE BRAKE / FOR CHRIST’S SAKE!”) at a moment’s notice, as if imitating the song’s previous statement about the uncertainty of love (“Now you say you love me / Pretty soon you won’t”). The way Darnielle begins the first verse in “Dance Music” (“Alright-I’m-in-Johnson-avenue-in-Sans-Luis-Obispo…”) sounds almost like he’s drunk, slurring the words as if he couldn’t tell the story if he didn’t have liquid courage backing him, and by the start of the second verse, it’s clearer and conversational, like he’s sobered up (“Okay, look, I’m seventeen years old…”). (On that song, here’s one of the most ambiguous curiosities in the history of music: just why is the police coming to get him?) And right after is “Dinu Lipatti’s Bones,” entirely sung in falsetto that’s so fragile, it could break under its own strain at any moment.
Not to say that the album slouches musically. Actually, this might be the best Mountain Goats album in that regard; songs are easily distinguishable from one another (something that unfortunately can’t be said with any of their albums after this one); “Dance Music” is something you could actually dance to. Not only that, the music often paints the pictures that Darnielle’s words are saying (as if they didn’t already). For instance, it can be as simple as the forward-tension of the anxious drumming of “You or Your Memory,” the driving piano chords of “This Year,” the staccato string arrangement of “Dilaudid,” the syncopated riff of “Lion’s Teeth.” Or it can be less obvious, like the rising piano figure at the 0:54 mark of “You or Your Memory” to the command, “I saw the moon begin to rise,” or the string hook of “Lion’s Teeth,” signalling the riff to stop and giving Darnielle something to hold onto. Meanwhile, “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?” has an ominous beat and a bleak organ buried way down in the mix, filling in the empty spaces of the acoustic guitar. Finally, though songs like “Magpie” and “Love Love Love” might not be the album’s best lyrically, they’re still on-point musically – the former has a great guitar figure during the verses and a great strum pattern for its choruses and the latter begins as a standard acoustic guitar and vocal thing before the Goats pull the curtain and turn it into a sobering psychedelic experience.
This is the second best album of 2005. It’s one of those “You either cry to this or you have no soul” deals.