FLASHBACK FRIDAY: The Mountain Goats, “The Sunset Tree”

Teen angst is a difficult thing to capture in its entirety, but my god that has not stopped anyone from trying. There are a million movies, TV shows, and more relevant to this article, songs that attempt to deconstruct what it is to be caught in that purgatory that exists between childhood and adulthood. When you’re in the midst of the chaos, everything feels like the end of the world. The stupid, awful things you did when you were drunk seem endless in their ability to affect the rest of your life consequentially. Your first love is surely going to last forever, your first heartbreak doubly so. The niggling sense of ennui you start to feel seems as if it’ll never go away (okay, that one is actually true). In 2005, the year I turned thirteen and officially entered the hormone-addled kingdom of the teenager, a band from Claremont, California called The Mountain Goats released their ninth studio album. In 2010, five years later, amidst personal crises that were both more and less significant than I perceived them to be, I fell in love with The Sunset Tree.

To be fair, though, The Sunset Tree is not just about adolescence; it’s a reflection as an adult on the abuse that songwriter and frontman John Darnielle experienced at the hands of his stepfather when he was a child and teen. A harrowing subject matter, to be sure, and although the sad truth is many people can personally relate to it, I could thankfully not. But that didn’t stop this record from snaking its tendrils around me and rooting itself firmly in my brain, attaching to memories and idiosyncrasies from my late teen years so permanently that I still hear the fingerpicking of Magpie when I experience an involuntary jerk of fear, like all those years ago.

Darnielle writes lyrics in a way that eludes just about every other artist I’ve come across. It can be raw, obvious, tangible, but it hits you in the fucking guts like a cannon ball. There are fantastical, whimsical drawn-out metaphors, taking you on journeys across oceans and skies and worlds; these then boil down to a statement so simple and plain that it forces you back down to earth with a thud that bruises your soul just a little. Traditionally a low-fi band, The Mountain Goats (colloquially known as tMG) released a record called Tallahassee in 2002, a giant leap into a more polished, produced sound. But let’s never forget that tMG have over forty songs in total whose titles begin with the words”Going to…”. That might give you some insight into the kind of mundanely genius, or genius-ly mundane, artist Darnielle is.

St Joseph’s Baby Aspirin, Bartles & Jaymes, and you… or your memory. It’s a simple line, the chorus of the album’s opening track You Or Your Memory, and like with many of the songs on The Sunset Tree, what isn’t said is far more important, far more screechingly loud, than what is. No human being alive needs it explained to them that physical objects, particularly ones that have the potential to aid in self-destructive processes, can be inextricably tied to painful memories. Nobody needs drug or alcohol abuse spelled out for them, nor grief. Darnielle’s stepfather Mike Noonan died in 2004, this album followed a year later with a liner note wishing Noonan “the peace that eluded [him] in life”. The Sunset Tree is the revisiting of all the damage Noonan dealt to Darnielle, the long-reaching consequences of this, the strange love Darnielle could still feel for him.

To be human is to flirt with self-destruction and call it poetry. Like many others, I began experimenting with this inexplicably stupid behaviour as a teenager. My experiences were not the same as Darnielle’s addiction to Dilaudid, for me it was other means of damage – but I felt as heady and chaotic and romantic as Now you say you love me/Pretty soon you won’t implies. Doing the things that will destroy you, and finding comfort in it. Pushing people away for no other reason than to wallow alone. Thankfully, most of us grow out of this, and I did. Some don’t. Listening to this song back now is such a visceral experience for me that it gives me flashes of what my life might have been like if I didn’t. Whatever your “poison” was – or is – this is universal.

The Sunset Tree is riddled with religious name-checks and cultural references from Darnielle’s childhood – the title is derived from a tale of abuse over a hymn, the lyrics skip over the Watergate hearings in Dance Music. These are trademark devices in Darnielle’s quiver. So is the unfair and illogical elevation of love to a cure-all antidote for pain. What aching teenaged heart, searching for meaning and purpose in a blur of mixed messages and confusing trials, never sought escape by burying their face deep in someone’s neck? There’s unbridled freedom amongst untold anxiety to be found in Broom People, where Darnielle finds refuge with a girl he dated as a 14 year old from the beatings he endures at home and at school – he describes himself as a “scrawny little fellow”.

I’ve briefly discussed just how affecting Love Love Love is before, but this cannot be overstated. As a teenager searching for true connection in all the wrong places and with all the wrong people, this track was a sorely needed lesson. I credit it with teaching me to look not only within, but to concepts, experiences, and knowledge to experience real love – instead of trying to find it in other people. Of course, an eventuality of this lesson is that when the right person comes along you’re actually able to form a solid, real connection. But in the interim, in those confused and pained days, Love Love Love calmed down my desperate whirlwind and allowed me to refocus.

This album should never be discussed without unpacking the seminal anthem of rebelliousness, courage and defiance that is This Year. Stomping and major, uplifting in its scenes of young love and motorcycles and video games, This Year spits in the face of young life’s troubles. It’s We’re Not Gonna Take It for the California indie alt-rock ex-lo-fi scene. It’s bolstering, reckless and comforting without being patronising, acknowledging “the bad things to come” but staying out past curfew anyway. I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me becomes a mantra unto itself. A catch-cry for anyone with a pained youth. In the midst of identity crisis and loneliness and make-or-break moments in my academic and personal lives, I clung to it with a desperate strength.

I’m not sure I could ever fully unpack The Sunset Tree, or fully explain its significance. Perhaps if I could write like Darnielle I could. Not likely – there’s a bloody online petition calling for him to be named a US Poet Laureate, for chrissakes. Suffice to say that through its depiction of anxiety, escapism, pain and beauty, this album taught a seventeen year old me how to be calm.

Image: The Mountain Goats Wikia