From 1991 to 2002, John Darnielle and his mostly one-man band The Mountain Goats recorded hundreds of songs on a hissy old boom box, tackling all the big subjects: failing marriages, world travel, enduring friendships, souls in crisis, and baseball. In 2002, Darnielle signed with 4AD, left his living room to record in a real studio, and befuddled his devotees, who worried that without the lo-fi interference, he'd sound like just another coffeehouse troubadour with a flat, nasal voice and more ideas than hooks. Instead, The Mountain Goats' 4AD debut Tallahassee allowed Darnielle's plainspoken stories to develop like the literate character pieces they've always been, and on last year's We Shall All Be Healed, The Mountain Goats began to exploit the possibilities of modern recording technology, crafting a sonically rich study of despair that considered what the past teaches about the present.
The third "phase two" Mountain Goats album, The Sunset Tree, is reportedly an extended reaction to the recent death of Darnielle's abusive stepfather, but it's not necessary to know that to understand the atmosphere of mixed feelings that settles over The Sunset Tree like a thin web. Sticking largely to tight arrangements of acoustic guitar, piano, organ, and brisk percussion, Darnielle sings songs of sorrowful defiance, full of vivid memories of childhood, as well as irony-rich lines like "I'm going to make it through this year if it kills me." The cleaned-up sound and aggressive posturing make The Mountain Goats sound like a youthful Bruce Springsteen backed by The Waterboys (or perhaps Mike Scott backed by a youthful E Street Band), and the fairly short running time ratchets up the force of songs like "Dance Music," which tells a headlong two-minute tale of how pop provides a respite from family squabbles. Darnielle gets in and out of his songs quickly, leaving behind a few choice lines as souvenirs. His is a life of artifacts for further study, like this list of "supplies" from The Sunset Tree's opening song: "St. Joseph's baby aspirin / Bartles & Jaymes / And you / Or your memory."