By Megan McLaughlin
It’s a rare and beautiful thing to find an album that fulfills all expectations, and then a little more. Upbeat and slower songs and provocative lyrics are a must, but when those are combined with a swarm of cellos in “Dilaudid” and references to Russian literature in “Love Love Love,” they create an album that never becomes tiring. This describes The Mountain Goats’ The Sunset Tree.
Released on April 26, 2005, The Sunset Tree is often overlooked among the band’s sixteen more widely-praised albums, , but it is truly a masterful middle child. Based on the lead singer’s childhood, John Darnielle’s lyrics transcend language into memory, each song a vignette of some place, moment, or feeling from his youth. “Broom People” gives a tour of the house in which Darnielle grew up, as well as introduces the album’s major characters: his mother, sister, and abusive stepfather.
This isn’t a regular acoustic singer-songwriter album. Although eight of the thirteen songs feature solely acoustic guitar and voice, they never become repetitive or grow tiring. The longing revenge fantasy of “Up The Wolves” has nothing in common with the impassioned and contemplative “Love Love Love” except for instrumentation. The perky acoustic guitar and piano of “Dance Music” is catchy without seeming superficial, and contrasts sharply with the somber cello and voice instrumentation of “Dilaudid” that immediately precedes it.
These songs paint pictures of real life. On the tour of Darnielle’s childhood home in “Broom People,” we hear about the “floor two foot high with newspapers, white carpet thick with pet hair, half eaten gallons of ice cream in the freezer, fresh fuel for the sodium flares” before hearing about his stepfather yelling at his mother in “Dance Music.”
The final track, “Pale Green Things,” ties the story up neatly, albeit bittersweetly. An open dialogue with his stepfather, Darnielle goes from sharing a pleasant memory of his stepfather taking him to the racetrack to watch the horses, to the moment he is writing the lyrics (“my sister called at 3 am just last December. She told me how you’d died at last”).
Fifteen years later, The Sunset Tree has still not grown old. The album is available on Spotify, Apple Music, and wherever CDs are sold.