I feel uncomfortable listening to The Sunset Tree, so uncomfortable that I hardly ever do it.
It’s not because it’s a bad album; the writing is evocative and the musical arrangements are a giant leap forward from the previous two Mountain Goats records. And it’s not because I have some obnoxious, hipster-ish affectation about how many people love “This Year”—it’s a fantastic song, of course people love it—though I would forgive you for thinking that, I am certainly not above the occasional obnoxious affectation.
As you probably know if you’ve ever even heard of The Mountain Goats, The Sunset Tree is an autobiographical album based on John Darnielle’s adolescence, particularly the abuse he suffered at the hands of his step-father. It covers themes that are universal to many people’s youth—feelings of helplessness, depression, frustrated anger. But the specific trauma that Darnielle endured is baked right into the album, and you can’t engage with the songs on any level without addressing it.
Can I get real for a minute, here?
I draw a lot of emotional strength from listening to The Mountain Goats. Even though many of the characters in their songs are living under conditions I can’t imagine, the ways they cope with these conditions are intensely relatable to me. But when I listen to Sunset Tree, I feel like I’m tapping into a deep vein of something that doesn’t belong to me. Maybe it’s the knowledge that Darnielle lived through these things, these exact things—or maybe it’s the knowledge that a lot of Mountain Goats fans came to the band through this album, and this album has a powerful, powerful meaning to those people, a healing light so clear and pure that I have to shut my mouth and turn away during concerts when Darnielle sings “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod,” because I feel like my very presence might cheapen it, somehow.
What I’m trying to say here is that this album isn’t for me. It’s for all the people Darnielle addressed in his “total victory” tweets from New Year’s Eve three years ago. And that’s an amazing beautiful thing that he has given those people, a thing that belongs wholly to them.
But it’s not quite that simple, right? Because like Darnielle says in that first tweet, he tries to talk to everybody all of the time. I can’t pretend to know why another person makes the art that they make, but I do know that Darnielle didn’t just lay his pain bare on The Sunset Tree so that we could stare blankly at it — he gave us a way in.
“Dilaudid” is a highly potent derivative of morphine – exactly the kind of drug you would take if you were trying to escape an unimaginably bleak home life. Twenty minutes ago, I did not know this, and I probably would have told you that a dilaudid was a type of flower or something. While the song “Dilaudid” is based on a period of time where Darnielle was doing heavy drugs and having lots of sex—two things that were not part of my teenage routine—what it sounds like is the reckless abandon of youth, a highly relatable subject for anyone who’s ever felt the darkness of the future opening up underneath them and tried to outrun it.
The repeated refrain of “kiss me with your mouth open” is about as naked and emotional a plea as a person can make, and when you hear that stark and foreboding cello riff that runs underneath it, the song’s only piece of instrumentation, you understand the fear and lust that are driving the narrator to make that plea, and you understand why Darnielle screams the way he does at the very end.
And once you understand that, you’ve got your way in. And you’ve got a shot at glimpsing a small sliver of something you otherwise couldn’t begin to understand.