The Mountain Goats and Bruce Springsteen will both release records on April 26. Guess which one these lyrics are found on:
I broke free on a Saturday morning
I put the pedal to the floor
Headed north on Mills Avenue
And listened to the engine roar
My broken house behind me and good things ahead
A girl named Cathy wants a little of my time
Six cylinders underneath the hood crashing and kicking
Uh-huh, listen to the engine whine
A-ha! You think. That’s clearly Springsteen—it sounds just like an outtake from 1978’s Darkness on the Edge of Town. But these verses come from “This Year,” one of many standout tracks written by head Mountain Goat John Darnielle for The Sunset Tree, which I was able to hear an advance copy of thanks to the kind folks at The Compact Disc Store (clever name there, guys. What do you sell?). A lot of these songs recall vintage Springsteen in terms of lyrics and in terms of production; the album often sounds like Darkness-era songs re-conceived for the later stops of the Tom Joad tour, when Bruce added some occasional and understated drums and strings to what had been a one-man show, producing revelatory new interpretations of his back catalog—all weary and contemplative, empty space punctuated by sparse instrumentation that sounded lush anyway. Had Springsteen had spent his mid-to-late-twenties reading Sophocles and Virgil and smoking a flippin’ joint or two instead of watching John Ford movies, reading Steinbeck and heroically abstaining for his art, Darkness might have sounded a little like The Sunset Tree. Both albums chronicle the conflicts between intense poet-rockers in the making and emotionally wrecked, physically shattered father-figures, and both albums hold out the power and promise of rock n’ roll as salvation from the desperation and brutality of life.
(If Darnielle spent most of his til-now career writing songs about people who were absolutely not him—the Alpha Couple, Grendel’s mother—and gradually turned towards autobiography with this album and its immediate predecessor, Springsteen has been walking the other direction on that road, gradually paring the autobiographical songs from his albums in favor of third-person narratives about very non-Springsteenly people—Mexican immigrants and meth-makers. It’d be interesting to see how The Ghost of Tom Joad and We Shall All Be Healed overlap and inform each other—one set of songs about illegal immigrants ruining their lives running drugs and cooking meth and another set about speed-freaks ruining their lives taking meth and running from the damage they’ve caused).
But I’ve probably tortured that comparison long enough; there are no doubt some of you who would not see comparisons to Springsteen as a compliment. I see you there: you’re easily identifiable by your stooped posture, the consequence of a lifetime shouldering the back-bending burden of your impeccable indie cred. Regardless, The Sunset Tree is a great album, if sometimes hard to take. These are some of the best songs Darnielle has written, but they’re at times so brutal, so raw, that they often make for uncomfortable listening. It’s hard to imagine a sloshed concert-goer shouting out requests for a narrative of abuse like “Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod?”—and not just because it’s really hard to say with beer-tongue.
And speaking of saying: one of the most effective weapons in The Mountain Goats’ arsenal is Darnielle’s voice; there’s not a performer this side of late-era Dylan who uses his voice’s limitations more effectively than Darnielle, and this record indicates that he’s still honing that particular blade. It would be easy for him to rely on the soul-in-tatters yelp that lends such force to such past fan-faves as “Home Again Garden Grove” or “Family Happiness”—and it does claw its way free here, at the end of “Dilaudid” and most effectively on “Up the Wolves” and “The Magpie”—but elsewhere he sings in a haunting, whispery falsetto. It makes sense. Too many cold-eyed rave-ups would have seemed weird and out of place on an album that is in large part about a protagonist struggling with the desire to be invisible, about wanting to act but fearing the terror and pain that are sure to follow.
In lesser hands, this album could have been a disaster—a song-cycle about a teenager’s bad relationship with his abusive stepfather, one that name-checks Kurt Cobain. But then again, it also name-checks pianist Dinu Lipatti, reggae legend Dennis Brown, and the she-wolf who nursed the legendary founders of Rome in their infancy and abandonment, so that Cobain reference is well earned. It’s that sense of perspective and context that helps these songs transcend the limitations of autobiographical, confessional, heart-sleeve tedium. In fact, I think it’s a mark of the album’s success that I went back and forth on the question of whether it did indeed achieve that transcendence until the final track, “Pale Green Things,” which throws a strange and bright new light on everything that comes before it. Not only one of the best songs in the Mountain Goats’ catalog on its own, it also rearranges the rest of the album into a whole that’s more complicated, more rewarding, and ultimately more satisfying than the one I might have been expecting.