Though it remains polarizing amongst a certain set of low-fi purists irked by the high production values, “The Sunset Tree” remains one of The Mountain Goats’ most acclaimed albums. While previous releases saw John Darnielle draw from his troubled past for inspiration, it was this album that saw him drop all pretense of writing “in character” and go full-on autobiographical.
Darnielle has always been a lyrical storyteller, and this album arguably finds him at the height of his prowess in that regard. He uses it here to unpack the traumas of his childhood, most notably those dealing with his abusive stepfather. This album is full of songs that are powerful, bittersweet, and deeply personal. Ranking them almost feels sacrilegious, but let’s do it anyway.
13. Dinu Lipatti’s Bones
Dinu Lipatti was a Romanian composer who died in 1950, and this is a song about building a house from his bones. John Darnielle called it “a love song for an old friend,” and maybe that’s why this song while haunting and pretty, doesn’t quite resonate as much as the other tracks on this album.
12. Song For Dennis Brown
Dennis Brown was allegedly Bob Marley’s favorite reggae singer who died of, you guessed it, lung collapse, supposedly due in part to cocaine abuse. It’s not a bad song, I wouldn’t call any song on this album “bad” to be honest. Its themes of substance abuse and tragic hero worship are completely on brand for The Mountain Goats, but it’s a bit of a retreat into the “write in-character” well and lacks the personal touches that make this album as a whole a turning point in Darnielle’s writing.
11. Love Love Love
This isn’t a love song so much as it is a meditation on love as a force of nature, and not necessarily a benevolent one. Here’s a bit of what Darnielle himself had to say about it:
“The therapeutic tradition that I come from–I used to work in therapy–you know, also says that it’s not love if it feels bad. I don’t know so much about that. I don’t know that the Greeks weren’t right. I think they were–that love can eat a path through everything–that it will destroy a lot of things on the way to its own objective, which is just its expression of itself, you know.” — NPR interview with Linda Wertheimer, 14 May 2005
10. Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod?
Now we’re getting to the good stuff — anthemic, horrifying recollections of an abusive household. Whether you grew up in similar circumstances or not, the story in this song is easy to relate to: feeling fear in your own home as a child, retreating to music for solace and a sense of control, and a burning passion to protect that feeling at all costs.
9. You Or Your Memory
The album’s opening track is melodically pleasant, bordering on upbeat. In trademark juxtaposition, lyrically it presents a wistful portrait of a transitional, dark, and uncertain period in the songwriter’s life — staying at a cheap motel while working at an AIDS hospice. The title/chorus of the song “You or your memory” presents what Darnielle calls “a Hobson’s choice” to the listener.
Dizzyingly angry and panic laden from start to finish. Of all the many songs that drive home the fact that John Darnielle abused pills as a teenager, this is perhaps the best.
7. Pale Green Things
Darnielle has called this the most personal song he’s ever written, so much so that he’s only played it live a handful of times. Written shortly after his stepfather’s death, it recounts a random, vivid memory of being dragged to the racetrack with him one day. It’s sort of an odd, ethereal eulogy to an abuser, and serves as a fitting closer to the album.
6. Lion’s Teeth
A revenge fantasy written from the perspective of a young and powerless John Darnielle. This song is tense and direct, it’s tempo invoking an angsty, steadfast intent.
While Darnielle has been a bit cagey in unpacking the meaning of this song, the symbolism evoked in it is clear enough. A magpie, as a personality descriptor, refers to a toxic person, sort of a taker. Here Darnielle warns, perhaps to the rest of his family, of the magpie’s coming with the tenacity of a medieval minstrel preparing soldiers for war.
4. This Year
Probably the most known track on the album, there’s no denying the universal relatability of “This Year.” It’s almost obnoxiously catchy, and there’s a subtle, simplistic genius to the chorus “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.”
3. Dance Music
Given that this is the guy who wrote a folk ballad about a small-town death metal band, you wouldn’t expect this song to actually be dancy, but it is. Sure it’s a song dealing with domestic violence and teenage self-harm with true-to-life snapshot lines like “I’m in the living room watching the Watergate hearings while my stepfather yells at my mother” but this ode to survival through escapism is, honest to god, kind of a toe tapper.
2. Broom People
Only John Darnielle can take a line like “I am a babbling brook” and sell it as the most triumphant thing you’ve ever heard in your life. It’s a song about how in high school you can legit be suicidally depressed but then also you can get a girlfriend and all of a sudden you have the best life imaginable. It’s a raw, celebratory slice of youth.
1. Up The Wolves
“I’m gonna bribe the officials! I’m gonna kill all the judges! It’s gonna take you people years to recover from all of the damage!” Is there a more cathartic moment in any song ever? This song is a testament to self-preservation. It’s one of those songs you can listen to a thousand times and it will never quite lose its power to make you feel something.