the sunset tree

Lion’s Teeth

Revenge Fantasy #98: I am driving down Franklin Street in Chapel Hill, NC and I come to a stop at a four-way intersection. [REDACTED] steps out in front of my car to cross the street. I honk the horn. He stops, startled, and looks over. Our eyes meet through the windshield and he somehow recognizes me. His mouth begins to open. I slam my foot on the gas.

Revenge Fantasy #42: Thirty minutes after leaving, I walk back into the party. Finding you amongst the crowd, I interrupt whatever inane anecdote you’re telling and deliver the crushing verbal blow that I should have dealt out before. Those gathered around are dazzled by my withering retort and their opinion of me immediately and irrevocably shifts. You feel like a fool.

Revenge Fantasy #218: I am visiting my hometown and I run into [REDACTED] at the Fresh Market. She doesn’t recognize me at first, but I introduce myself and explain that I was her student when I was ten years old. Her face lights up. We hug and laugh and she asks what I’m doing now. I tell her where I’m living and what I’m working on. I ask if she is still teaching and she smiles, shakes her head and says, no, she retired just a few years ago. I smile politely and I say, good. I call her the vilest, most upsetting word I can think of and tell her how relieved I am, because the idea that she was responsible for the well-being of a group of children made me physically ill. She is shocked, silent. I walk away, still smiling.

Revenge Fantasy #350: You once again intrude upon my personal space in a public setting, but instead of yielding I stand my ground. You stare me down, shaken by this upset in what you perceive to be the natural order. You shout at me and we enter into an argument that quickly escalates to physical violence. I enact a series of expert blows that leave you alive but fully incapacitated. The people around us are shocked but no one exactly blames me. I somehow escape any legal retribution.

Revenge Fantasy #299: [REDACTED] is standing at the edge of a cliff, looking out over a deep ravine. I approach from behind and call out to him, expressing my love for his most recent critically-acclaimed production. He turns around but before he can see my face I reach out with both arms and push him as hard as I can. The world around me slows to a crawl. I know that any moment I can reach out to grab him before he falls, but I linger as long as I can on the sight of his face, the panic and fear in his eyes.

Revenge Fantasy #130: On a dark night, I meet the person who hurt you. I lead them into a quiet place, far away from the rest of the world. I do terrible things for what I tell myself is a good reason. I am there with you when you find out what has happened, and even though I never tell you that I was there, you somehow know. You turn to face me and the look in your eyes is unreadable.

Revenge Fantasy #605: I break into the large, comfortable home of [REDACTED] while he and his family are away. I search through his files and records until I find evidence of financial impropriety. I publicly reveal that he has illicitly used funds from church donations and book sales for personal gain. His reputation is destroyed and his flock abandons him. I also find recorded evidence of a homosexual affair, which stands in stark contrast to his vehemently anti-gay stance, but I don’t make it public: I simply leave it in a place where he’ll know that someone else has seen it, and that they know he is a liar.

Revenge Fantasy #1: I am successful far beyond anyone’s expectations. My artistic integrity is unquestioned and my financial status is enviable. Every public move I make is observed and analyzed for traces of my well-know brilliance. Every day I am showered with appreciation and praise. Everyone who has met me and not fallen immediately in love now understands how wrong they were.



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.