As should be obvious by now, I love few bands/artists like The Mountain Goats and John Darnielle. I can’t think of another artist who I have spent the bulk of my formative years with that continues to write incredible songs that resonate so deeply with me. My first experience with Darnielle’s music was the essential Abridged Perversion compilation on Shrimper. Forgetting “The Badger Song” (though nobody should ever forget it), something about the simplicity and absurdity of it instantly grabbed me. Part of it was hearing something with the same fidelity and general feel as the music my friends and I were trying to make at the time, but immeasurably better. It was obvious from the beginning that Darnielle was a special talent and someone that would be relevant for years (decades it turns out) to come.
With the release of his first novel, Wolf In White Van, it seemed like a good time to get this one out of the way even though I’m determined to some day finish my article ranking all 14 non-cassette Mountain Goats full-lengths even if I’m giving away my top choice right now. The Sunset Tree is number one on that list with physically-abusive bullet. On his most autobiographical work, the impact is felt long and deep. From beginning to end, there is not a lull in the album (it’s one of the best sequenced records in the past 20 years). This is music as catharsis in it’s rawest, purest form. “This Year” is anthemic to the extreme. “Love Love Love” hits so hard it physically hurts. I can feel the breaks in Darnielle’s voice on “Dinu Lipatti’s Bones.” Ending the record with “Pale Green Things” and the line about his sister calling him to tell him his stepfather had died puts the album over the top… “She told me you’d died at last…” I can hardly deal with the monster The Sunset Tree is.
Darnielle has argued that the relevance and value of a song is not based on the truth in the subject matter, and while I agree, it’s hard not to at least question that sentiment when considering the power of The Sunset Tree.