Wednesday, October 5, 2011

On The Sunset Tree

Writing about The Sunset Tree, I realised almost as soon as I said I would do it, is fairly difficult to do well. It's an album that people, including me, care very much about, and I worry that whatever way I see it will not be the same as how it is seen by anyone else. But I think that's what makes The Sunset Tree special; it is personal. That it is semi-autobiographical could have meant it would just be personal to its writer, John Darnielle, and to everybody else it would be like reading a diary; full of emotion, but belonging to someone else.

But instead, there are many Mountain Goats fans out there who feel that they have their own personal connection to the album, from those who see a reflection of their own lives in it to those who have lived through completely different experiences and yet can relate totally to what Darnielle writes.

The first song on The Sunset Tree, You or Your Memory, introduces one of the important aspects of the album - memory. The narrator sits in a motel room looking back on his life and everything that has happened to him. The song acts as a frame for the rest of the album; the rest of the songs are recollections of his childhood, leading up to where he is now. He bargains with God for him to “make it through tonight”, and this theme of survival is a thread which passes through the entire album; even the same phrase, "make it through," is echoed later in This Year.

In Broom People we move from the present into the past, seeing those memories from the point of view of Darnielle as a teenager. This change of perspective is subtle, but the listener can tell that this is a teenager talking, particularly in the lines “I write down good reasons to freeze to death/ In my spiral ring notebook.” There is a feeling of loneliness and isolation; his family aren't even mentioned in the song, and his friends and teachers (well-meaning as they are) are outsiders that cannot do anything to help him. The song shows us a boy trapped in a house full of every kind of insignificant object - “all sorts of junk in the unattached spare room”- and it seems as if he considers himself to be just another one of those things. The only meaning in his life is the love of the person to whom he's singing. Love setting us free is hardly an original concept in songs, but this song is memorable for the images he uses- “I am a wild creature”, “I am a babbling brook.

”This Year is a perfect example of how the songs on The Sunset Tree (more so than any other Mountain Goats album, in my opinion) can have great personal significance to people. It has all the things you would expect from a song about adolescence - rebellion, drinking, a girl- but what stands out about this song is that one line; “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.” It brilliantly captures the experience of being a young person, not wanting anything except to survive another twelve months in whatever personal hell you reside. It's a song about hope, but it is not blindly optimistic; that the song which starts out as a break for freedom ends up in “a cavalcade of anger and fear” is hardly a good omen for the future, and “if it kills me” reminds us that getting through this particular year is not going to be easy.

From the hope of This Year we move suddenly into the desperation of Dilaudid. The most interesting aspect of Mountain Goats songs tends to be the lyrics, and sometimes it can be easy to see them almost as poems rather than songs. With Dilaudid the music is undeniably significant; even if you were to take away all the words, it just sounds like someone losing their sanity. It is a suffocating feeling of panic. Personally I see this song as being slightly disconnected from the story of the album, not being related in any obvious way to Darnielle and his stepfather, but it still gives the impression of a vivid memory, and in the line “if we live to see the other side of this” it continues the theme of survival from You or Your Memory and This Year.

If Dilaudid is somewhat unrelated to John's life, the same could definitely not be said for Dance Music; it is one of the more noticeably autobiographical songs on the album, its first few lines locating it in a specific time and place, and having all the small details of a childhood memory (“I'm in the living room watching the Watergate hearings.”). The first verse is from the perspective of a scared child using music as a hiding-place while his parents fight. Just like “I am going to make it through this year”, the line “so this is what the volume knob's for” stays in the listener's mind because it is a thought to which many people can relate. The second verse is a different memory, of a young man in a bad situation and scared of dying alone, and once again finding solace in music as he did when he was a child.

Dinu Lipatti's Bones further explores the theme of trying to break free, to find, as in Dance Music, a place to hide. Even the quiet way in which it is sung suggests someone whispering, trying not to be heard by the person they're running from. It is similar to Broom People in that the person named only as “you” in the song is a symbol of love as a means of getting away from an unhappy life. However, the imagery of a house built with bones (especially the bones of someone who had died of cancer) suggests that the relationship that he was using as an escape was flawed. “It was money that you wanted” would also seem to imply the relationship was less than perfect, that perhaps he was being taken advantage of. Despite fairly frequent use of the word “we”, there is still an atmosphere of loneliness in the song; the listener gets the impression that it was the two of them against all the other people in their lives (“we kept our friends at bay all summer long”). Together, yet still isolated from the rest of the world.

Although much of The Sunset Tree focuses on John Darnielle's stepfather, Up the Wolves turns the spotlight on everyone else. For me the phrase that comes to mind in relation to this song is “all it takes for evil to triumph is for good men to do nothing.” Up the Wolves is a song about those who did nothing, above all Darnielle's mother who he saw as being “absent”, leaving her children to be “raised by wolves”. There is some hope at the beginning of the song, as he just waits and tries to believe that the future will be brighter some day, but soon realises that there is no way of knowing if and when that's going to happen. Having decided that he has to do something, he looks to the adults around him for help, and comes to the conclusion that even if they knew “what was going on”, they would do nothing more than “shake their heads and wag their bony fingers.” In the last verse he is left with nobody to rely on but himself. It is the thought of a child losing all faith in the people who should be protecting him is what makes this song so poignant.

Lion's Teeth is somewhat different from the rest of the album because it is not exactly a memory, at least not in the same sense as some of the other songs. It has been described as a “revenge fantasy”, and it does seem in some ways less like a real incident than other songs on the album, especially as the image of the lion used throughout the song makes it seem very much like a dream or a story. However, that doesn't make it any less emotional; it is one of the few songs that I would use the word “heartbreaking” to describe without feeling that it was an exaggeration. As Darnielle describes tears rolling down the face of his younger self it sounds like he himself is nearly crying.

The intensity of emotion that underlies Lion's Teeth carries on into Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod. The picture of the child hiding in his room listening to music that we saw in Dance Music is to be seen in this song too, but this time he is older, again the teenage narrator of Broom People and This Year. The importance of music is emphasised here; it allows him to “vanish into the dark and rise above [his] station”. But this escape doesn't last long, and the choice of words like “blaze” and “scream” highlight the anger and hatred that was in the house. Part of what makes this album so touching is that Darnielle lets us see exactly what he felt, for example in the lines “hoping you don't break my stereo/ Because it's the one thing that I couldn't live without.”

The idea of hope versus hopelessness is a major part of The Sunset Tree and while there is a glimmer of hope to be seen in This Year and at the end of Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod, the two next songs, Magpie and Song For Dennis Brown, are very much on the side of hopelessness.

Magpie is an interesting song, reminiscent of either a curse or some kind of biblical warning about the devil. As I said about Dilaudid, this song does not seem directly connected to the rest of the album or its story, but it certainly fits in with the theme of hopelessness, with its clear message that when something terrible is going to happen, there is nothing at all that we can do to avoid or prevent it.

In Song For Dennis Brown, this inevitable terrible thing is more specific; it is a song about a man who has realised that his death is not a question of whether or not he will die of an overdose, but when it will happen. Thinking of things that continued to happen when the singer Dennis Brown died- children singing in choirs, people stealing food from bins behind restaurants- is a reminder that tragic deaths for the most part slip by unnoticed, as the world carries on as it did before. The song doesn't end until a minute after John Darnielle stops singing, and for that whole minute we are left to think about how sadly true that is.

Love Love Love is one of the songs that's most important to me on the album. It turned me into a Mountain Goats fan. It had all the things that I would come to admire about tMG: references that I didn't understand without the help of Google, John's imperfect-yet-perfect voice, and well-written lyrics. It looks at love as a force that can make people do terrible things- murder for love, suicide for love- but it's not saying love is bad, either. To see it as a song against love would be too simple, and the entire point of the song is that love is not a simple black-or-white thing. Before I heard Love Love Love I had only heard one Mountain Goats song- No Children- and while my first reaction to that song had been “that was pretty good, maybe I should listen to this band some more”, my reaction to Love Love Love was the feeling of being overwhelmed by how beautiful it was.

Pale Green Things ends the album as it started; the adult John thinking back over his life. He is dealing with his stepfather's death and, like Love Love Love, he observes the lack of simplicity when it comes to love. He notes that one of the things he recalled on hearing that his stepfather had died was a childhood memory of the two of them going to a racetrack together, and he looks at the difficulty of reconciling good memories like that with other, painful memories. The image of little plants managing to grow in the cracks in the ground represents love, growing in strange circumstances where nobody would expect it to survive.

Despite what I said about The Sunset Tree being difficult to write about, I'm glad I chose it. It has a special place in the hearts of lots of Mountain Goats fans, and for good reason; it explores the difficult topic of trying to deal with abuse and it does so in a way that is both sad and beautiful.

By Carolina Cordero. Ms. Cordero is a student in Cork, Ireland.