The Mountain Goats

The Sunset Tree

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John Darnielle is a compulsive writer forever clutching his stomach as songs pour out uncontrollably into whatever recording device is in front of him. What sets him apart from other prolific artists in the indie rock world (Conor Oberst, Ryan Adams, Stephin Merritt) whose records and side projects can't keep up with the flow of their pens is his almost alarming gift for pairing quantity with quality. After dropping the devastating Tallahassee -- a record that followed in gory detail the imagined demise of a Florida couple's marriage -- in 2002, he turned his focus inward, taking an almost autobiographical stance on the follow-up, We Shall All Be Healed, a framework that is applied tenfold on the riveting The Sunset Tree. This is John Cougar Mellencamp's Scarecrow if it were set in southern California and narrated by Charles Bukowski. At the center is Darnielle's abusive stepfather, who slyly receives the album's dedication. He's a drunk, a misguided disciplinarian, and a lousy role model for the young artist who plies away his days in a haze of liquor-fueled misogyny, wistful romanticism, and good old-fashioned teen angst, always aware that each night will end in violence. Darnielle's talent for writing an engaging narrative is matched only by the succinctness of the music behind it. This is especially true on standout cuts like "This Year," a near-perfect snapshot of youthful defiance with its rousing, last-road-trip-ever refrain of "I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me," and "Lion's Teeth," an uncomfortable moment of clarity that looks rage in both eyes without flinching, using a string-laden backbeat to up the suspense. Despite The Sunset Tree's white-knuckle subject matter and salt-in-the-wound imagery, it's surprisingly accessible. It's a gloves-off catharsis occurring in real time for the gifted singer/songwriter, and it leaves a mark on the listener as well.

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