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Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Sunday, May 22, 2005

THE SUNSET TREE

This week-end a friend lent me “The Sunset Tree,” the new record by the Mountain Goats, an act I’d never heard, and I’ve been listening to it.

“The Sunset Tree” makes me reconsider the Death Of The Album, which I’ve been very comfortable with ever since the CD made it convenient for me to skip songs I don’t much like. (And right now I can’t think of one (non-jazz) pop album where I don’t skip tracks, besides Brian Wilson’s “Smile.” Maybe Gang of 4’s and the Sex Pistols’ first albums. OK, maybe a few -- but not many!) In the last year, though, I’ve heard a few albums whose constituent songs have benefitted tremendously from the context of the albums in which they’ve been released:
* Brian Wilson’s “Smile,” with its lovely interweaving of musical themes from song to song;
* Barry Manilow’s “Two Nights Live,” with the sweet context of Barry and his fans’ surprise at finding their mutual love;
* and “The Sunset Tree,” with its running theme of singer-songwriter John Darnielle’s childhood surviving the terrifying abuse of his step-father.

Part of the power of Darnielle’s song about grabbing the lion’s tooth, with the tag line, “I hold on / for dear life,” depends on the thematic context. It wouldn’t sock it so emotionally if I didn’t know the “lion” was his step-dad who beat him into unconsciousness in other songs. I can’t know what it would sound like without knowing the context, but I do know this: Great song, with terrific arrangement, the cello carrying an emotional, expansive melody during the chorus in response to the minimal, also very emotionally effective vocal melody.

Darnielle is famous for his lyrics. I’ve read at least 8 or 10 write-ups of this album or previous ones, and all I knew about the music going in was that it was minimally arranged, guitar-based, at least sometimes rhythmically urgent, and that he sang emotionally. I think one reviewer somewhere mentioned that he wrote nice melodies, but mostly the writers talk about the lyrics, lyrics, lyrics.

The detail-rich lyrics are, for me, hit or miss, but when Darnielle hits, he hits it out of the park, and in his own style.

In the second verse of “Broom People,” I was wondering why in hell the singer was getting so worked up about “a half-eaten gallon of ice cream in the fridge,” but it made sense when the last line came around, that when he’s tangled up in “your” hair, he is “a babbling brook,” sung with the wild abandon of freaked-out amazement at sexual connection, an amazement that retrospectively takes in the ice cream carton too.

Sometimes, despite the detail, the meaning is opaque. When the cops come in the second verse of the song “Dance Music,” I have no idea why, which is a shame, because the first verse is so vivid and powerful. The cops coming without explanation succeeds at spookiness, but leaves a bad taste in my mouth, like the singer is deliberately withholding information. I have to consider, though, that maybe I’m just dense, and the reason for the cops coming is perfectly clear, and I’m simply missing it.

Though I don’t always like the sound of it, Darnielle has a strong voice. A reedy, nasally timbre, reminiscent of strident ‘60s folk-protest singer Phil Ochs, sometimes slightly of Gordon Gano of the Violent Femmes’ first album, but more rational than Gano. Gano was barely out of adolescence when he made that adolescence-laden freak-out album. In the adolescence Darnielle portrays on this album, the standard American hormonal freak-out is complicated by an abusive parent, even though, as my friend Jake London pointed out, there are important cross-over points with un-abused teen-hood -- drive, drink, sex, music, identity formation, the longing for escape. Unlike Gano at the time of “Blister in the Sun,” Darnielle is in his mid 30s now, and I don’t recall Gano alluding to the myth of Remus and Romulus’s rearing (which was conducted by a she-wolf), or Jewish liturgy, which Darnielle does, expertly and movingly.

But whether I always like Darnielle’s voice, he’s a master of inflection and dramatic expression, with great control of timbre and pitch.

My first listen, the songs struck me as melodically and harmonically limited and repetitive, but on 2nd listen, I didn’t notice that, and my reaction depended on my connection to the song-as-a-whole, including the lyrics. The band is good, the arrangements nice, usually minimal, sometimes lovely. And they’re all in service of the songs, with their unique, strong style.

And more than mere art, Mr. John Darnielle, I’m just damn glad you made it out of that house. There will be dancing and singing in Jerusalem next year. As a song that alludes to another religion has it, until then we’ll have to muddle through somehow. Good luck to anybody struggling with demons, internal or external.
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