Sound — 8
Perhaps a lesser known weapon in the budding singer-songwriter genre's arsenal, The Mountain Goats have been around in some form or another for over 15 years, gaining a small but dedicated early fanbase through prolific frontman and principal songwriter John Darnielle's lo-fi cassette releases. But 'The Sunset Tree' falls under a different heading; all the songs on this album, as is with his last two releases, are clean, full and devoid of any tape hiss. It is Darnielle's new accessability (and, well, availibility, the majority of his cassette releases are relatively rare and difficult to get hold of) that inspired me to review this album. The Mountain Goats' sound is, overall, a very pleasing one. It ends up sounding like a less rough Neutral Milk Hotel or a less folk-orientated Iron & Wine. Pleasantly strummed acoustic guitars are the main instrumentation used here, with occasional backup bass guitar or piano. Only a very small handful of the tracks on the album feature percussion. Yet somehow, the songs manage to sound anything but subdued. Some of the more upbeat songs such as 'Dance Music' and the brilliant 'Up The Wolves' are simple piano & guitar pieces are but are as full and lush-sounding as a full band. So, to sum up the sound, I would say it should sound sparse on paper, but in reality, most of the tracks sound deep and accompny Darnielle's warm nasal voice perfectly.
Lyrics — 10
This is definitely the album's selling point. 'The Sunset Tree' incorporates many pseudo-autobiographical stories as well as the classic Mountain Goats fantasy tales. Most recall Darnielle's abusive childhood, brought up by his violent and unloving stepfather. Though the tone of the album starts off relatively upbeat, the lyrics get increasingly heavy and emotional as the album goes on, peaking with the final two tracks, 'Love Love Love' and 'Pale Green Things', the former a meditation on the things we do for simple, honest love, and the latter an extremely heartfelt and sombre story about his stepfather taking him to the racetrack in his childhood, finishing with a recollection of the morning his sister called him to inform him he was dead 'at last'. The lyrics can be unashamedly emotional as well as light-hearted, but they all ultimately revolve around the themes of escape and the feeling of helplessness and lack of control. However, some of the music wouldn't lead you to believe these sort of lyrics would work with them, but perhaps surprisingly, it does. One of the lyrical highlights for me, 'This Year', is an example of this. Very upbeat music, but such lines filled with strife and struggle such as 'I could feel the alcohol inside of me hum, picture the look on my stepfather's face, ready for the bad things to come.' or 'the scene ends badly as you might imagine, in a cavalcade of anger and fear.' hint towards Darnielle's coping with his past. Darnielle's voice itself does the job fine, he's not going to be challenging Buckley with his range, but he can carry a tune and his curious nasal singing voice compliments the relative oddity of some of the songs less based on real life.
Overall Impression — 9
Does 'The Sunset Tree' push forward the very boundaries of modern music? No. Does it break layer upon layer of new ground, revolutionising songwriting as we know it? Probably not. But it does act as a breath of fresh air on the singer-songwriter genre. Such brutal honesty and emotion in the lyrics, without being about the loss of a 2-week relationship with a girl that's more make-up than personality? Say it isn't so! I think you'll be surprised with how much of the album you can really sit up and listen to because there's also a morbid edge to the lyrics, tempting you with lesser-touched on themes such as domestic abuse and death with little remorse. By far my favourite songs on the album are 'Pale Green Things', for it's bare truth and sadness, 'Up the Wolves' for the perfect blend of metaphor and fantasy, and the opener, 'You Or Your Memory', for immediately establishing the album, and not pulling a 'Rainy Day Women #12 & 35'. The thing I love about this album is its immediate effect. You don't have to have a degree in obscure children's books to understand the majority of the literary references he makes as is the case with some more pretentious musicians and you don't have to have gone through a term of fatherly abuse to appreciate the ugly beauty of his stories. The music is easy to listen to, even as only background music; occasional throw-away lines will still grab attention. There are occasional problems with lack of variations, there are perhaps only 2 or 3 songs that don't make you pity his situation; perk you up a bit. It is quite a heavy listen in that respect, but that is almost balanced out by doing the opposite of Damien Rice and making the music fairly upbeat and happy-sounding rather than sombre along with the lyrics. And as is the case with nearly all of John Darnielle's 'crazy' ideas, it wouldn't work any other way.