In a recent posting to his blog, main Mountain Goat John Darnielle explains his position on "the age-old authenticity question": if a songwriter has really lived the experiences he or she sings about, does that make the song better? Is M.I.A.’s greatness dependant on her ethnicity and political lineage? Does the Notorious B.I.G.’s first album ring truer because of his crack-dealing past? Acknowledging that the elevation of authenticity to a sacred, end-all-be-all criterion for good music is bullshit, but accepting that the dismissal of authenticity is "a resolutely apolitical stance to take," Darnielle emerges from the other side of this debate with an adamantly ambivalent conclusion. "You really can have it both ways," he writes, "and unless you’re still rather anachronistically wedded to the notion that transient pleasures trump all, you should."
It’s no surprise that the authenticity question has been weighing heavily on Darnielle’s mind. The Sunset Tree, his third for 4AD, contains the first explicitly autobiographical statements he’s made in a songwriting career mostly devoted to fictional story-songs. Dedicated to the stepfather who beat the shit out of him throughout his adolescence, The Sunset Tree focuses primarily on Darnielle’s youthful longing to escape his "broken house," whether through drugs, sex, music, violence, a fast car, whatever. The authenticity of his emotions is what gives the album its edge. But, like Louis Armstrong before him, it’s the way Darnielle transmutes his hurtful past into triumphantly beautiful music that makes the album.
Because the music really is gorgeous. In keeping with Mountain Goat tradition, drums and electric guitars appear infrequently amongst The Sunset Tree‘s thirteen songs. Instead, Darnielle sticks to the tried-and-true guitar-piano-synth-strings formula, and it’s amazing how much sheer beauty he manages to wring out from that sucker, whether he’s going for sprightly uplift, drone, or pure acoustic balladry. And the backing musicians are always worth attending. Lonesome piano chords, subtle bass lines and violin notes from nowhere anchor Darnielle’s strange, pinched-nose vocals. There’s nothing too fancy here, nothing that makes you sit straight up in awe — just forty minutes of consistently lovely transient pleasures.
It’s a good thing the music is so beautiful, because if not, Darnielle’s lyrical motifs could have come off as sententious or false. Instead, the music accentuates the level-headed conciseness and intimacy of the words. "Dance Music," for instance, bops happily along, taking us on a two-stop tour of Darnielle’s childhood, first at age five ("or six, maybe"), then as a seventeen-year-old. First verse, the little shrimp watches his stepfather throw a glass at his mom’s skull, then runs upstairs to strap on headphones and listen to dance music: "So this is what the volume knob’s for." Second verse, the teenage Darnielle fools around with a girl afflicted with a "special secret sickness" — it’s gotta be drug addiction — and "when the police come to get me I’m listening to dance music." The themes of escape, music, sex, drugs all show up in this happy little song that clocks in at less than two minutes.
And that’s just one example out of many. Throughout The Sunset Tree, Darnielle proves incredibly adept at limning heartbreaking situations without asking to be pitied for them (possibly because he’s so used to writing fictional songs about characters he doesn’t particularly care for — see his previous album, We Shall All Be Healed).
Darnielle has admitted to writing at least the chorus of "Up the Wolves" ("Our mother has been absent ever since we founded Rome/ But there’s gonna be a party when the wolf gets home") in a state of automatic, free-write agitation, which probably explains why it’s seemingly so meaningless. There are other songs with vague or surrealistic imagery — "Dilaudid," "Magpie." But I choose to give the benefit of the doubt to the bizarre stuff — the pseudo-profundities, the absurdities — maybe because, I dunno, Darnielle writes, I write, there’s a bond there. Or maybe it’s because I know he’s completely capable of producing lyrics so utterly concrete and comprehensible that the other stuff can’t possibly be total bullshit. Weird stuff like "Dilaudid" (which, I should add, contains a virtuosic vocal performance by Darnielle) doesn’t reduce my appreciation of The Sunset Tree. If anything, it’s compelled me to listen to it more, because I’m sure there’s something there I’m missing, thematically or otherwise. In other words — I believe in John Darnielle. What higher praise could there be for a work of art?