Vocals are as much a part of the musical experience as any instrument. And as contemporary pop music begins to incorporate more disparate sounds, it has also naturally begun to accept more varied vocal performances. While John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats is no Joanna Newsom, he does possess a unique style that can be both compelling and off-putting at the same time.
On The Sunset Tree, Darnielle does what all great unique vocalists since Bob Dylan have done; he surrounds his voice with beautiful melodies and inventive lyrics.
This is the most personal album of his career, with the singer-songwriter reaching deep into his memories to recount the hardest parts of his life. On the lead single “This Year,” Darnielle provides a deceivingly inspirational song about overcoming those low moments. There hasn’t been a simpler or more effective line this year than
“I have to make it through this year/If it kills me.” (Well, except maybe Antony & the Johnsons “Hope there’s someone who’ll take care of me when I die.”)
Much of the record deals with the traumatic upbringing of Darnielle, including bouts with his abusive stepfather. Yet through all the haze of tragedy the album emerges as a hopeful one, much like the title indicates. Songs like “Love Love Love,” though somewhat simple, contain heartbreaking sincerity that rises above any level of cheesiness. The melodies and pitch-perfect compositions of these songs are what hold them together and eventually make for a superb record.
The band does toe the line between earnestness and being too direct at times, but essentially that is what makes the record shine. The songwriting is concise and clear, not bogged down by indecipherable words and noises; it floats in our ears because we understand it. Darnielle has the gift of writing memorable songs based on real experience. The man tells it like it is, and for that alone he should be applauded. Thankfully he can sing his heart out, deftly compose and continually make lovely albums as well.