Few songwriters paint a picture as vivid and askew as Mountain Goats vocalist John Darnielle. The hyper-prolific singer/blogger is often heard singing dingy tales of substance abuse, bitter relationships and the occasional farm animal, all of which usually take place in various places in California or exotic locales around the world. Darnielle’s songs are something of an anomaly in pop music. They’re beautiful and jarring all at once, his perfectly imperfect voice spinning cringe-worthy, heartwarming tales that seem as if they were pulled from a collection of short stories, rather than a songwriter’s notebook. And his newest album, The Sunset Tree, finds Darnielle crafting even more bizarre narratives, some that could be personal, some that could relate to the same relationship he’s supposedly been singing about for years. But all of them have a unique character unto themselves.
The two-minute opening pop tune, “You Or Your Memory,” finds Darnielle romancing a lover in a motel on La Cienega Blvd., crooning a chorus of “St. Joseph’s baby aspirin, Bartles and Jaymes and you.” His peculiar voice can be subtle and quiet when he wants it to be, but Darnielle can also be downright forceful, as in his near-shouting delivery on “Broom People.” The third track, “This Year,” is one of the best on the record, with its pretty, simple piano chords and jazzy percussion. But it’s, again, Darnielle himself that makes the song what it is, triumphantly declaring, “I am gonna make it through this year, if it kills me.”
Musically, however, The Mountain Goats are an equally interesting entity. Take, for instance, the ominous strings-only backing of “Dilaudid.” Or the fun, Latin rhythms of “Dance Music.” An obvious stand out on The Sunset Tree, musically, is the electric stomp of “Lion’s Teeth,” with its haunting string backing. This is probably the closest I, personally, can think of that Darnielle has ever come to truly “rocking out.” Furthermore, Darnielle offers one of his most powerful vocals, singing “my palms start to sweat, and the tears roll down my face until my cheeks are hot and red and soaking wet.” And then there’s the loud, harsh strumming of “The Magpie,” which take The Mountain Goats’ acoustic indie folk to a new, heavier level.
On the whole, most of The Sunset Tree sounds like what you would expect a Mountain Goats record to sound like. But, truthfully, it’s exactly what you’d want a Mountain Goats disc to sound like: more folky textures, the occasional full-band arrangement and more strange narratives about discovering pop music and collapsed lungs. This is the guy, after all, who listed 101 things to compare Interpol to other than Joy Division on his own website.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.