There are some unobtrusive supporting players on The Sunset Tree, but the Mountain Goats remain a one-man-and-his-guitar, low-fi-indie-pop-troubadour operation. The man's name is John Darnielle. He has a plaintive, earnest voice that quivers just a touch and seems to come from a cartoon hero-mouse. His new record is the most saddening and eviscerating listen you will have all year.
Darnielle is known for his lyrics--straight narrative tales that often use full sentences propped with gentle poesy. On this album, he comes with scalpel drawn and starts cutting through the last 20 years, recalling with harrowing clarity the story of his young life and how his alcoholic stepfather almost took it from him, barehanded. Survivor tales aren't exactly uncommon in music, but they usually gush out in abstruse flurries, obscured by guitar-drenched rage. Darnielle lays it all out, like a map sketched on the acoustic guitar he often strums with hyper intensity, and makes us watch through the keyhole as his teenage world unravels completely. With his singing sweet, if a little tense, he offers scenes of beatings at the hands of his stepfather and an Aesopian account of putting a shotgun into his sleeping abuser's mouth ("Lion's Teeth"). He juxtaposes those with tales of drug-fueled sweet salvation and suicide-pact dream dates, he and his girlfriend "twin high-maintenance machines" ("This Year"). The paradoxical punch line of that last song is also the heart-wrenching pledge that drives the album: "I am going to make it through this year/if it kills me."
When Darnielle sings, "And then I'm awake and I'm guarding my face/Hoping you don't break my stereo/Because it's the one thing that I couldn't live without" (on "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod"), it's the longhand version of that familiar "music saved my life" line, and in fact the whole album is a tremendous, though almost unbearably sad, ode to cheating death through music. For Darnielle it was the only place his dreams could exist and develop; it was his escape hatch and his means of tunneling out.
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