The Mountain Goats – The Sunset Tree review

Secret Meeting score: 89

by Philip Moss

I was first made aware of The Mountain Goats through the singer/songwriter, Ezra Furman. When creating a playlist for Wild Honey Pie, he claimed their singer, John Darnielle, ‘might be the best songwriter living’ and that his songs are ‘as good as the best fiction’.

Intrigued, I did a quick Google search and the more I read, the more curious I became. Darnielle was also an acclaimed author – having released two pieces of critically acclaimed literature (Wolf In White Van and Universal Harvester, plus a book about Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality album for the excellent 33/3 series). The band has released fifteen records, including a number on Merge & 4AD – both of whom have released some of my favourite albums ever and are renowned for their exquisite rosters and back catalogues.

So, going back to Ezra’s tip, I ordered what he’d claimed to be their finest moment – 2005’s The Sunset Tree. Then, rather than have a quick listen on Spotify, I waited for the album to arrive. Sensing it would be a special record, I didn’t want to tarnish my first experience with it by listening to a substandard stream.

Opening song,You Or Your Memory starts in a ‘bargain priced (motel) room on La Cienaga’, before Darnielle takes an evening stroll to collect ‘supplies’. On returning, suicide is a genuine option. But he takes a long hard look at himself in the mirror, returns to the room, cuts the lights and in the dark searches deep within himself – ‘Lord, if I make it through tonight, then I will mend my ways and walk the straight path to the end of my days’. Thankfully surviving that night, he begins his emotive, narrative account.

For those of you that didn’t already know, The Sunset Tree is a concept album, documenting the hard truths of domestic violence which were present in Darnielle’s childhood. The record’s sleeve notes explain further:

‘Made possible by my stepfather, Mike Noonan (1940–2004):

may the peace which eluded you in life be yours now

Dedicated to any young men and women anywhere who live with people who abuse them, with the following good news:

you are going to make it out of there alive

you will live to tell your story

never lose hope’

Second song, Broom People, takes us back in time, placing us firmly in suburban America: the Darnielle family home to be exact – ’’36 Hudson in the garage, all sorts of junk in the unattached spare room. Dishes in the kitchen sink.’ A seemingly normal setting; much the same as any other teenager in America in the late 70’s/early 80’s would have experienced. But, while the family home may look normal, what goes on inside is not. His friends and well-meaning teachers ‘don’t have a clue’. His only sources of release are his girlfriend and a ‘spiral ring notebook’ where he becomes a ‘babbling brook’.

Now, I realise that this is a music review and I haven’t actually discussed any ‘music’. But, Darnielle’s voice takes up so much space in the mix, and his story is that compelling that it would be wrong not to focus on that. That aside, The Sunset Tree is also ironically a brilliant pop record and John Vanderslice (best known for his work on Spoon’s 2005 LP, Gimmie Fiction), juxtaposes the harsh subject matter with some simple, yet brilliantly tasteful production and tight arrangements, best highlighted on the single, This Year.

An anthem for the seemingly doomed youth, This Year opens with piano flurries as  seventeen-year-old Darnielle’s ‘leaving the broken home behind’. Evoking an image from Stranger Things (remember this is set at a very similar time), he heads for the arcade to let out his anger on the machines and drink scotch to numb the pain – ‘I broke free on a Saturday morning. I put the pedal to the floor.’ Yes, Darnielle delivers the type of lyrics Morrissey might have conjured if he’d been brought up in California, not Salford. And, like music’s best encapsulator of teenage despair, he is not just a great lyricist, but also has an astute ear for pop melody: turning the most macabre of lyrics into a sickly, sweet bubblegum chorus – ‘I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.’ 

Evoking early Belle & Sebastian, Dance Music also contrasts the heavy subject matter with a pop tune. As his step father rages at his mother and ‘launches a glass across the room straight at her head,’  the five year old Darnielle rushes up to his room to lose himself in the sounds that drift from his record player. A scene I’m sure many who’ve used music to block out life’s bigger problems can relate to.

And it’s a scene that’s developed upon further on the record’s best song, Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod, which references the many hours spent with his headphones on, using music as an escape and ‘feeling like ‘the last of a lost civilisation’. But then, the devine moment is broken: ‘You blaze down the hall and you scream/I’m in my room with the headphones on/deep in the dream chamber.’ That’s not the worst of it. ‘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.’

Not prepared to put up with the suffering his family has endured, Lion’s Teeth depicts a brutal revenge dream over pounding drums whereby he takes advantage of his stepfather who’s fallen asleep in the car, and reaches into his mouth, attempting to rip out his tooth.

So, just as Ezra stated – this really is narrative songwriting of the highest order. An emotional, engaging tale of justified adolescent angst. A message to anyone out there who’s suffered in similar circumstances that you are not alone, and that there is a voice that can help to guide you through the difficulties, no matter how hard they seem while you are in them. John made it through those years. And, not only that, he went on to use and channel those difficult times into a timeless piece of pop music.

Ps. Having since added most of their back catalogue to my collection, here’s some other recommended records by The Mountain Goats:

All Hail West Texas – The Goats last truly lo-fi album, recorded entirely on Darnielle’s Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox and, as the front cover states, it’s “fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys.” Originally released in 2002 (Merge re-issued it on vinyl in 2013), it was written while Darnielle’s wife was away at a hockey camp and he was still working full time.

Heretic Pride – Released on 4AD in 2008, Heretic Pride turns the focus away from himself and back onto thematic-based character songwriting and features Annie Clark (aka St Vincent) on guitar and backing vocals. Highlights include Sax Rohmer #3, San Bernadino and Autoclave.

All Eternals Deck – Produced by John Congleton (Beach House, Bill Callahan, Future Islands), 2011’s All Eternals Deck was the band’s first release on Merge. Despite venturing into more overtly pop-punk moments, Age of Kings is the real standout- a gentle, meditative acoustic song with a beautiful, reflective chorus – ‘Gold light shining on so many things/ In the age of kings’.

Alternatively, check out this Spotify playlist we created featuring some of our favourite Mountain Goats’ songs: