The Mountain Goats
The Sunset Tree
By Christopher Alexander | 21 October 2007
A play in one act by Christopher Alexander
The curtain rises. We see a living room that is covered, wall to floor, in wood paneling. If we were to see the floor, we would see it was covered in deep scuff marks and scratches. These are wounds from skateboard wheels, and in fact if we turn our attention to the doorway, we see no less than two skateboards lying on the floor. Both of them lay broken in half, so that all four pieces lie with their nose pointed upwards like cannons. You may fail to notice them among the pile of detritus, mostly containing crushed cans of Pabst beer augmented with the occasional Harvey Weinhard bottle. In the background there is a green couch, stiff with old sweat and littered with magazines and ancient record sleeves. They fail to obscure the stuffing falling out of the cushions, which has spilled over and competes for space with the beer on the floor. In the foreground we see a long picnic table, something that would be hilariously out of place elsewhere, but here blends in with the empty picture frames and tacked-up typewritten poems (the poems, it is worth noting, are covered in their authors’ blood. For dramatic effect, you understand). The table itself is covered with more of what’s on the floor, though the pile of molding dishes and fly-covered fast-food bags suggest that the kitchen is annexing the living room.
CHRISTOPHER walks through the room. He is a slight and bookish young man, Caucasian and bespectacled, clad in flannel pajamas. He surveys the wreckage, and then walks to stage center. He turns to address us directly.
CHRISTOPHER: Here’s the set up: this is my living room. Now here’s the punch-line: the other day I was wondering why John Darnielle’s songwriting strikes such a chord in me.
The curtain falls.
Actually, I recently caught myself thinking that about X’s first three records. It isn’t just that the songs are conspicuously lived in, or the way it points out things I’d no idea that I already knew --- that shock of recognition which is the hallmark of all great songwriting. No, what really got to me was their emphasis on narrative. You may remember narrative as the idea that a story should have a beginning, middle, and an end, and a character (sometimes the narrator) goes through a fundamental change. Maybe Black Flag’s “Nervous Breakdown” is a better song, but to me there’s something much more visceral about Exene Cervenka setting her kitchen on fire to escape the landlord (“We’re Desperate”), or John Doe sleeping with a beautiful woman when he’s living with one (“White Girl”), then Keith Morris yelling, “I’m crazy! I’m crazy! I just want to diiiiieeeee!” in my fucking face for ten minutes. That could also just be me.
So why am I talking about X in a piece about The Mountain Goats? The groups couldn’t be more dissimilar: the punk quartet wrote songs about youthful alienation, adultery, spiteful relationships, the psychic implications of nihilistic debauchery, all with a strong sense of regional setting --- oh, good, I have your attention again.
There are key differences, of course. “Los Angeles” told a xenophobic runaway’s story in two short verses. Darnielle used nearly all forty-five minutes of Tallahassee to express similar themes of metropolitan futility. Not that he didn’t use every inch of the bigger canvas he afforded himself. Darnielle’s lyrical range could start with a hilarious simile like, “our conversations are like minefields: no one can find a safe way out of one yet,” and turn on a dime to acerbic candor on the incredible "No Children": “In my life, I hope I lie / And tell everyone you were a good wife / And I hope you die / I hope we both die.” Tallahassee remains the most sanguinary and unflinching record of a dysfunctional relationship in recent memory. The only thing I can think to compare it to is Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolfe? He could’ve retitled it Long Day’s Journey into a Nightcap and no one would have noticed.
Tallahassee is an admittedly problematic place to begin discussion. After all, it’s only the ninth album (to say nothing of singles and EPs) in a fourteen year career. I do it here because the album demarcates a clear transition between phases, not simply because of its production value. Rather, having left his Panasonic behind, Darnielle also abandoned his characters and unreliable narrators for comparably uncharted waters: straight autobiography. It would be wrong to say that his first full bodied attempt, We Shall All be Healed (read CMG review here), stumbled. It just lacked Tallahassee’s cohesion and erudition, or, when it didn’t, strong hooks.
WSAbH did signal a newfound focus on varying the instrumentation, even if, from a strictly musicological perspective, much of it was indistinguishable from the rest of his work. That’s the first thing that’s striking about The Sunset Tree: the arrangements on this record are spectacular. Darnielle is backed only by strings, “Elanor Rigby” style, on “Dialudid;” “Lion’s Teeth” uses the strings and an electric guitar to achieve an unholy tension; “Dinu Lipatti’s Bones” uses piano to achieve a kind of tenderness barely hinted at in something like “Tallahassee;” an organ lends majesty to the unfortunately titled “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?” and takes an already gut wrenching lyric somewhere else entirely. I don’t know if this is due to Peter Hughes or producer John Vanderslice, but in terms of sheer musical heft, this is easily the best record Darnielle has ever done (romanticists of lo-fi aestheticism, “the tape hiss is its own instrument” fetishists be damned).
Still, the Mountain Goats have always been (at least roughly) analogous to the Leonard Cohen model: with lyrics this good, the music has no choice but to stay out of the way. WSAbH suggested a lack of confidence in writing personal material, or at least uncertainty. It was very competent, and wasn’t wanting for great lines, but if one asks does it pass muster --- meaning, whether or not Darnielle made his own life as rich and interesting as his fabrications --- then a frank answer would be "no." Well, forget all of that. Darnielle has given us a story that is impossibly painful, subject matter that is unreasonable to expect the most self-referential artists to dissect, and he’s fucking nailed it.
The Sunset Tree recounts the author’s child abuse at the “swollen and thick-veined hands” of his step-father. Like his past work, there is no real story arc, and it’s to Darnielle’s eternal credit that many of his narratives work with people stuck in a pivotal moment of transition (see the famous “Going to” series). Rather, there is a series of connected and anachronistic vignettes that still achieves a cadence, not dissimilar to a Tarantino film (or Bergman’s Scenes from a Marriage, if you’d rather). Note how the most wrenching songs are smack in the middle of the tracklist. Note also that it’s cushioned by the most soothing: “You or Your Memory” and “Pale Green Things.” That’s no accident.
“This Year” seems like just another great Mountain Goats singalong. The narrator is seventeen years young and can taste the scotch on his tongue, he can hear the engine hum, ho hum. There’s a Mack truck around the corner. This year is year seventeen, one year to eighteen, one to freedom. “I’m gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” It almost does. The end of the night is bad enough - “the scene ends badly, as you might imagine” is all he says of it. The police get involved on “Lion’s Teeth,” wherein he attacks his father by “grabbing the lion’s tooth” and “holding on for dear life.” What that alludes to is unclear - my guess is attempted strangulation - but the devastation isn’t. “I’m going to regret the day I was born … there’s no good way to end this.”
“Up the Wolves” is rife with teenage revenge plots people like to think started with Columbine: “I’m going to bribe the officials / I’m gonna kill all the judges / It’s going to take you people years to figure out all the damage.” At its heart, though, is a child abandoned: “Our mother has been absent ever since we founded Rome / But there’s gonna be a party when the wolves come home.” They all pale next to “Tetrapod,” a vivid recounting of a beating where Darnielle is more concerned with his stereo than his health: "Because it’s the one thing that I can’t live without / And I think about that, and I sorta black out.”
It’s perhaps elementary to discuss Darnielle’s lyrical gift. It may even be useless to offer a comparison to the increasingly risible emo genre, something no Mountain Goats record is ever going to overtake in popularity. Still, it bears repeating: the reason Darnielle is taken seriously and Carraba isn’t (or at least not by anyone who won’t soon outgrow him) is the narrative. Places, events, names: these are the essential pieces of mental furniture, as Allen Ginsberg might say. The play I’ve written is (hopefully) good for a laugh, but it doesn’t contain an ounce of the blood --- the anger, resentment, self-loathing and fatalism --- that Darnielle would wrest from it when he’s at top form. The Sunset Tree is top form.