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Mountain Goat Darnielle Gets Autobiographical With 'Sunset Tree'

A recent column in the New Yorker that was mostly about the Mountain Goats (the name under which singer/songwriter/musician John Darnielle records and tours) reverently discussed Darnielle's lyrics as some of the most keen and intelligent to be found in contemporary independently-released rock music. This is a fine assertion to make — the Mountain Goats have been pushing lyrical limits in songwriting for years on albums that have been adored and discussed (and even purchased on eBay for exorbitant sums). Until now, though, Darnielle has generally eluded two-page articles and photo shoots from Conde Nast publications.

But The Sunset Tree (4AD) Darnielle's new Mountain Goats album (produced by John Vanderslice), treads different territory, and perhaps it's opening up the ears of critics and listeners who might be turned off by narrative story-songs about ancient Greece or Aztec gods. (Overheard at a recent Mountain Goats show in Brooklyn, uttered slowly and pretentiously without a hint of sarcasm: "My favorite Mountain Goats songs are the ones about Aztec gods and overwhelming heartbreak.")

For the first time, Darnielle is writing fully about himself (last year's We Shall All Be Healed was tangentially about his experiences with drugs, friends, and drug-addicted friends). This new foray into autobiographical territory could explain why some people are perking up their musical (and editorial) ears in ways they haven't, but certainly should have, before.

Still, though — better late than never. And for fans, The Sunset Tree is a captivating glimpse at a life tacitly avoided in Darnielle's songs for over a dozen years. Darnielle, corresponding over email, explains the rather lengthy wait:

"I waited to write these songs precisely because I don't care to listen to somebody whose pain is still fresh romanticizing his own situation," Darnielle writes. "I'm not special, my situation isn't special, it's quite common; I wanted to get enough years between me and my situation to write honestly about it."

Darnielle's stepfather, a "complex and eventually tragic figure" (now deceased) features prominently in The Sunset Tree, and the situation from which Darnielle felt the need to separate himself was the abusive childhood he suffered while living under the man's roof. The album covers Darnielle's teenage years; around two decades later, he figured enough time had passed.

"I don't think writing directly from pain is really honest; I think pain distorts reality and magnifies the ego," he writes. "All respect to people in pain, of course! But who really wants to hear them cry?"

Darnielle, however, has spent his career writing songs about and filling albums with characters in pain, so he lends his own tale a familiar sensitivity. In We Shall All Be Healed, Darnielle figured in the record as a character on the periphery of that album's tragedies; in The Sunset Tree he's right in the thick of it, screaming and crying and remembering. There are characters in the Mountain Goats' catalogue who suffer the devastation and anxiety that befall the young John Darnielle in this album, though he insists that fiction is fiction, and none of his earlier songs were a direct result of either his childhood or a need to deal with it.

"I don't write songs when I'm in pain, nor play music to feel good," Darnielle writes. "I'm sure plenty of people do, and that's fine for them, but that notion of art as purgative therapy for the artist isn't very interesting to me. I wrote The Sunset Tree for my younger self and the many people just like him who are out there in the world right now, but it wasn't a way of treating myself or anything."

Not surprisingly, the process was not easy for Darnielle, whose blog during the recording of the album mentioned emotional breakdowns and exhaustion. "Sometimes the writing got really emotional, which was weird for me. The stuff I wrote in Europe, much of which didn't get recorded, kinda reduced me to a blubbering wreck a couple of times," Darnielle writes.

Additionally, the new stress of writing in the first person presented its own anxieties, doubts, and debates. "When a guy with only himself to consult writes auto-bio stuff, there's a high probability for navel-gazelry," writes Darnielle, though he mentions that friends like bassist Peter Hughes (who plays on the album and tours with Darnielle) kept his more indulgent tendencies in line during the writing and recording. "The hard part about writing, for lack of a better phrase, was keeping it real: for me; the typical survivor's tale is a little too here's-the-hero here's-the-villain, and I didn't want that. I didn't want anybody to feel sorry for me."

Darnielle continues: "When I say that I used to just tell stories, I think that's the truth; I don't think that all my previous work was just a warm-up for writing autobiographically, and in a way that's why I wouldn't have wanted to do auto-bio stuff; there's this presumption that telling stories is somehow less 'real' than writing about one's life. I reject that idea. I don't think my life's mission is to talk about my life; I just happened to start doing it lately to see where it would lead me."

Whether or not he continues to follow this idea and records a third record about his own experiences is still to be determined, though judging by his descriptions of the song subjects Darnielle's been tackling recently, he'd have to be stepping into pretty symbolic territory for the autobiographical element to remain. "The mummy! Vampires! A pterodactyl!" he writes, adding, "It's all rather more emotional than it sounds." — Neal Block [Wednesday, May 25, 2005]


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