by carl wilson

Sunrise, Sunset

sunsetree.jpg

Bedraggled and belated - after last night's much-too-short but still-firey live show in Toronto - here's my piece on The Mountain Goats' The Sunset Tree from last weekend's Globe and Mail. Eerie symmetries are afloat here, since John Darnielle's latest album is a meditation after the death of his stepfather and my absence from the interweb the past week is due to the death of my father. (The piece was written, unknowingly, the night before.) I don't want to go on much about that, and in most every way, I hasten to add, the two events, the two relationships, have nothing in common. But there is something between older and younger men, fathers and sons, that even in the best cases is a persistent knot to tug on. The Sunset Tree has been in my mind the past week on that level - as well as, of course, making me even more grateful for the gentle and supportive family environment that I had.

More, in all likelihood, on last night's show later today (Chromewaves has a few words, meanwhile). And some Thursday Reading too. But first here's the column, which chews further, I hope productively, on that autobiography-versus-fiction question that was wrassled over here last week. [...]

He's finally confessed, so hold on

Weekend Review
CARL WILSON
OVERTONES
7 May 2005
The Globe and Mail

Long into the night he's been simmering in his own juices. Three or four of us are on an illicit after-curfew stroll in our teenage wilderness of dark residential streets, and it is 1 or 2 a.m. before we circle back to my girlfriend and her brother's house. Their dad waits in the driveway in a kitchen chair, drunk. He means to put the family he tore apart back in order, maybe using the baseball bat in his hands, and his first obstacle seems to be me. But his offspring slip into chillingly well-practised diversionary tactics, enough to ensure nobody gets hurt right then. I get away.

The Sunset Tree, the new album by the Mountain Goats, transports me back to that driveway, and no doubt its stark revelations would stir some of your ghosts up too. There's an irony there: John Darnielle, the freakishly gifted California-born songwriter who records as the Mountain Goats, has always been a vehement crusader against the notion of solo singers with guitars as confessional diarists à la James Taylor.

Adopting his nom de band was one way to distance himself from singer-songwriter clichés. Darnielle also juggles personas in song, ranging from Aztec gods and Roman senators to the Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf-style pair who booze and claw their way across America in a couple of dozen “Alpha Couple” songs.

Darnielle has released literally hundreds of witty, tender, acidic and bizarre songs since 1991, mainly home-taping his hopped-up acoustic guitar and rubbery Jimmy Stewart vocals on a Panasonic boombox. Three years ago the 4AD label finally lured him into the studio and began bringing him to a wider public.

Darnielle's anti-confessional vows were first broken openly on last year's superb We Shall All Be Healed. It drew, elliptically, on a long-ago period of hard drug use and the friends who were lost to it. Sunset Tree goes much further. Dedicated both to Darnielle's late stepfather and to “young men and women anywhere who live with people who abuse them,” it is unnervingly candid.

A few songs refer explicitly to “my stepfather,” elsewhere known just as “you.” He can be found passed out in the car or on the couch, hurling a glass at his wife's head some time during the Watergate hearings, or a decade later with his bare hands smothering the narrator, who only prays his stereo gets through intact: “It's the one thing that I couldn't live without/ And so I think about that, and then I sorta black out.”

At first the abuse scenes seemed so overpowering I felt Darnielle hadn't left enough open air for ambiguities and double meanings. Was this former psychiatric nurse and youth counsellor doing social work with this album, at the expense of his art? Or had Darnielle become the autobiographer he always warned us about?

But with further listening the trauma scenes came to seem balanced out, as seemingly unrelated love songs revealed themselves as celebrations of even the most neurotic teen romance as a hard-found, meaningful kind of shelter — “locking eyes, holding hands/ twin high-maintenance machines.” Other songs are spiked with cryptic magpies or cherry blossoms and layers of allusion: Who but Darnielle could gather boxer Sonny Liston, the biblical King Saul, Crime and Punishment's Raskolnikov and Kurt Cobain's suicide into one tune, and pull it off?

Perhaps best of all, Song for Dennis Brown sketches the day of the death of the great reggae singer and prodigious cocaine addict, with a guitar line echoing Bob Marley's Redemption Song, lyrics steeped in Frank O'Hara ("On the day that Dennis Brown’s lung collapsed.../ School children sang in choirs/ And out behind the chinese restaurants/ Guys were jumping into dumpsters") and a special angle on the album's preoccupation with survival — the question of whether the demons that kill you are also the ones that sustain you, and where that balance lies. (A question that could be posed to the stepfather equally as to his victim.) Earlier on the album, Darnielle sings, “I'm gonna make it through this year if it kills me.” In the region of The Sunset Tree, every hope has that sharpened edge.

Most young songwriters begin with self-expression, confusing the artful with the merely heartfelt. Darnielle held back till he was ripe and ready. He isn't venting inner tantrums, unlike rock-rap groups and emo bands, the true Oprah-age heirs of the confessional singer-songwriters. Instead he sets up recognition scenes, in which dynamics reverse and barriers harden or dissolve, and explores them inside and out.

Most of Darnielle's past charm as a singer came down to unabashed yelling, but he moderates himself here. And producer John Vanderslice has assembled cellos, pianos and other keyboards into by far the best Goats arrangements yet. It's as mature an album sonically as it is thematically.

The record may centre on adolescence, but it begins and ends in the present, with an adult taking stock. In the extraordinary coda, Pale Green Things, Darnielle recounts the moment he learned of his stepfather's death in December of 2003: “My sister called at 3 a.m.,” he sings in a small-hours hush. “She told me how you'd died at last.” Then he repeats, melody rising quizzically - “At last?” - as if to chasten himself for greeting anybody's death this way, even that of his nemesis.

So he summons up one comparatively unblemished memory, of driving together early one morning to the racetrack, his stepfather timing horses as they ran their paces, fragile green shoots poking up through the asphalt.

This is not a song of forgiveness. It's about the larger cycles that make people and things the way they are, cycles indifferent to our judgments, sweeping all before them. So many songs on the album portray the agonizing powerlessness of his youth that this achievement of adult equanimity seems a kind of triumph. But there are no points to be totalled here. Living your life is what matters.

Who knows if this is how Darnielle “really” feels, or how much so? He'd be the first to insist it shouldn't matter where a well-crafted song comes from, only where it goes. But I doubt the unresolved resolution in Pale Green Things would strike so deep if it were just fiction alone.

It may not be aesthetically rigorous, but people do care about the human beings behind the songs — a disc like The Sunset Tree leaves you little choice there, and I wouldn't wish it otherwise. Every human horror and pleasure begins in that craving for attachment, and ends up, perhaps, in the reciprocal necessity of letting go. As Darnielle sings, “Some moments last forever./ But some flare out with love, love, love.”

Read More | In Depth | Posted by zoilus on Thursday, May 12 at 1:39 PM | Linking Posts | Comments (6)

 

COMMENTS

They were so good at Lee's Palace...I had high expectations and i was blown away.

Posted by Tim Gottschalk on May 14, 2005 12:25 PM

 

 

Damn, I'm sorry to hear of your father's passing. I hope you and yours are comforted by the knowledge and experience of his life.

Posted by Brad Bechtel on May 12, 2005 9:29 PM

 

 

Hi Carl,

so sorry to hear about your father. As you know (and I know) the world is not the same anymore after losing someone close to you.

Take care of yourself,
tim

Posted by tim posgate on May 12, 2005 6:34 PM

 

 

deepest condolences to you and your family, Carl.

Posted by frank on May 12, 2005 4:53 PM

 

 

What J-Shaw said.

Posted by Jake L on May 12, 2005 4:08 PM

 

 

Carl, I'm so sorry!

Love to you & your people.

Posted by John S. on May 12, 2005 3:36 PM

 

 

 

Zoilus by Carl Wilson