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The Sweet Triumph of Active Survival

The Sweet Triumph of Active Survival

by Alex V. Cook, Music Editor
first published: March, 2005

approximate reading time: minutes

If this sounds more like book review than an album review, it's because the scale of this short tale is a brilliant novel distilled into short sharp songs.

The Mountain Goats
The Sunset Tree
(4AD Records)

For some reason, there is a definite bias out there against the singer/songwriter, the would-be poet that climbs that stool like its Mt. Olympus, armed with his seven or eight guitar licks ready to open his well-worn soul upon an adoring crowd. OK maybe I understand that bias, but I am of the pro-singer/songwriter camp. I believe that, like how Jeff Tweedy once described Nick Drake, that you can create a whole world with just your voice and an acoustic guitar. Most of the time, that world has only room for one in it, and its language is only decipherable by the natives, but every once in a while, a strident troubadour enters the scene with something new.

John Darinelle, the central narrator, and often only member, of the Mountain Goats is one of these guys. He manages to upturn the myth of every-picture-is-a-self-portrait by penning countless songs about cavemen, kings and much of the time, a dysfunctional couple with the surname of Alpha. His imagery is transparent but compelling, his belief and feeling for these characters comes through with each rapid fire strum, every brave and resolute utterance from his nasal yet pleasing voice. His music is what I want the whole "emo" thing to sound like, but doesn't - energetic, unabashed emotion with a clarity of self and others.

On his third album for 4AD, The Sunset Tree, he finally turns his pen on his own life, giving himself license to expound upon his troubled childhood once his tyrannical stepfather, a central antagonist, has died. It's a compelling tale of marginal living, the dread of an unpredictable drunk being the hub of your familial wheel, and the defiant escape of music. On the jaunty "Dance Music" he enters with

Alright I'm on Johnson Avenue in San Luis Obispo
And I'm five years old, six maybe
And indications that there might be something wrong with our new house
Trip down the wire twice daily
I'm in the living room watching the Watergate hearings
While my stepfather yells at my mother
Launches a glass across the room straight at her head
And I dash upstairs to take cover
Leaning in close to my little record payer on the floor
So this is what the volume knob is for
I listen to dance music.

All in the first minute. A lesser storyteller would make a whole song of that, but it is one of the many reflections of pain and redemption on this record. His trademark frenetic pace is given a rest on the sweet burbling "Dinu Lipatti's Bones." But the shining lyrical moment is the earnest "Up the Wolves" where he declares "Our mother has been absent, ever since we founded Rome, but there's gonna be a party when the wolf comes home." - the best use of the Castor and Pollux allusion since John Woo's Face/Off. Darinelle's heart beats loudly on his sleeve, the blood of his damaged family forever staining his clothes. The beauty of this album is that he neither gives himself totally over to anger or self-pity. Instead, he portrays the dramatic strength of the kid-with-a-hard-life without giving himself a medal.

The curiously titled "Hast Thou Considered the Tetrapod" is the anthem of this character, declaring "in my room, I am the last of my civilization" where he defends his stereo instead of himself from his stepfather's tirade, knowing that it and not his face is the fragile keystone keeping the avalanche from rolling. Some softer feelings comes in "Song for Dennis Brown," depicting when (I'm guessing) his stepfather finally passed, he points out that the universe keeps going for good and bad, and his own death will not be all that different.

If this sounds more like book review than an album review, it's because the scale of this short tale is a brilliant novel distilled into short sharp songs. Darinelle tarries close to the maudlin line at times, but never falls into the trap of preciousness, opting to instead transform a youth a weaker spirit would milk as an excuse into a platform from which to launch himself. Its an alarmingly honest and insightful record. One only hopes that Darinelle keeps writing the character of himself and lets us read it as he goes along.

Alex V. Cook
Music Editor

Alex V. Cook listens to everything and writes about most of it. His latest book, the snappily titled Louisiana Saturday Night: Looking for a Good Time in South Louisiana's Juke Joints, Honky-Tonks, and Dance Halls is an odyssey from the backwoods bars and small-town dives to the swampside dance halls and converted clapboard barns of a Louisiana Saturday Night. Don't leave Heathrow without it. His first book Darkness Racket and Twang is available from SideCartel. The full effect can be had at alex v
about Alex V. Cook »»



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