Confessionals Without Crimes

The Mountain Goats venture into the deep waters of the psyche

It's a testament to lead Mountain Goat John Darnielle's lyrical brilliance that it's almost impossible to settle on a couplet from his latest album, The Sunset Tree, that demonstrates this profundity. (Quoting lyrics, by the way, is a favored trick of the lazy journalist, but it's rather pointless to write about John Darnielle without discussing his remarkable verbiage.)

To cite but two examples from this pithy gem of a record, there's this sentimental variation on the justice of roosting chickens, from "Dilaudid": "All the chickens come on home to roost / plump bodies blotting out the sky / You know it breaks my heart in half, in half / when I see them try to fly"; and on "Love, Love, Love," Darnielle ties the Bible to boxing and love, and then later to Kurt Cobain: "King Saul fell on his sword / when it all went wrong / and Joseph's brother sold him down the river for a song / And Sonny Liston rubbed some tiger balm into his glove / some things you do for money, and some you do for love, love, love."

This verbal fecundity has always been a Darnielle trademark, since the first time he pressed "record" on the shitty boombox on which he used to record the bulk of his earlier cassette-only albums for the Shrimper label, dating back to 1991. Over the years, he's chronicled the lives and bad habits of outcasts and misfits and ordinary people, using song cycles ("Going to _____" songs use place as a simple narrative conceit; "Songs for _____" utilizes perhaps the oldest songwriting trick) and a confessional style to become a Dylan for the tape-hiss set. But one particular subject was never really explored until last year's We Shall All Be Healed--Darnielle himself.

"This is the thing that's funny about writing a record like this," Darnielle told Linda Wortheimer of NPR in May. "There are a few extremely pleasant childhood memories that you remember, but the daily pleasantness of being a child, even in a hard house to grow up in, is not what you remember--there are these flash moments ... ." Darnielle was discussing "Dance Music" on The Sunset Tree, and the vivid moment on which the song turns. "I'll never forget this grey glass; it was an NFL glass, I think, flying across the room; it was full of milk, and breaking against a wall. And it was this sudden intrusion of violence, and I was like 'I'm going upstairs.'"

Producer/recording artist John Vanderslice, who's a longtime associate of Darnielle's, recalled his mix of trepidation and excitement before embarking on the recording of The Sunset Tree, in the same NPR interview: "When I first started getting the demos from John and Peter (Hughes, bassist and backing vocalist), I was very excited to bring this stuff into the studio, but I knew that it would be difficult for John to do that--he's totally opened himself up." (Incidentally, Vanderslice himself will be releasing an album in August, Pixel Revolt, on which he also fully ventures into the subject matter of his own life for the first time).

For more insight into John Darnielle than his 415-plus recorded songs allow, one need only turn to his highly amusing blog (an extension of a photocopied zine) called Last Plane to Jakarta, where he indulges, among other things, his obsession with death metal. Take this June 10 entry, f'instance: Massively underrated this year has been Altered Genesis by Blood Red Throne: Tchort's riffs are overproof kerosene thrash, pure quality. While this album isn't the shocking splash of bleach to the eyes that Monument of Death was, it's still worth your dimes and nickels, especially for the Suffocation-style breakdown that puts "Mephitication" to bed once and for all.

On this stop in Tucson, which is the first for the Mountain Goats (at least in the Weekly's recollection) and the last date of the current tour, Darnielle has the support of a full band, which is relatively new for him (in an anecdote described by Sasha Frere-Jones in the New Yorker, Darnielle would come out on stage by himself and say "Hi, we're the Mountain Goats"), as is the lush production his recordings have gotten since 2002's Tallahassee. File this show under "Don't fucking miss it if you care even one whit about quality songwriting," which, I suppose, would be under the letter "D."

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