John Darnielle, the man behind the Mountain Goats, might just be the only person on the planet who can make the act of drooling sound almost dreamy. “Spittle bubbling on your lips,” Darnielle bleats in his signature nasally tenor, “fine white foam.” Darielle took the Mountain Goats name in 1991 while working in a California state hospital, and has produced over ten full-length records since 1995.
Darnielle is an incredibly prolific songwriter, releasing over ten full-length records since 1995. The Goats’ latest album, The Sunset Tree, is the most personal and polished to date. Back in the ’90s, Darnielle was famous for his low budget cassette recordings and intricate song cycles. He has a series of songs called “The Alpha Series,” which spanned several albums and chronicled a dysfunctional couple’s relationship.
The Sunset Tree is a personal narrative about Darnielle’s childhood and coming of age, specifically his fraught relationship with his stepfather. Darnielle’s touching and simple lyrics capture the perfect mixture of desperation and innocence. “I write down reasons to freeze to death / In my spiral notebook,” Darnielle sings on the second track off The Sunset Tree, “Broom People.”
The guitar work on The Sunset Tree is rather light, especially when compared with the decidedly dark lyrical content. The contrast between the jangly, upbeat music and the terrifying subject matter is particularly jarring on “Dance Music.” The song is about his stepfather throwing a glass at his mother’s head. Darnielle dashes “upstairs to take cover,” and realizes that by turning the music up, he can drown out the fighting. “This is what the volume knob is for,” Darnielle recalls.
Darnielle’s nasal tones and high falutin’ references (he throws in a song about the mythological characters Romulus and Remus on The Sunset Tree) might take some getting used to, but it’s worth it for the truly earnest, gorgeous results. The Sunset Tree is out today.