It’s nothing I haven’t told most people, but my father was an angry and abusive man. Although he was only violent infrequently, his brand of abuse came in the form of emotional neglect. I have been told that, up until I was around 6-years-old, he was a very good father, but past that, his interest in me as a person began to quickly dwindle. He took very little effort to ever care about me, which was something I tried to defend, saying, “We just enjoy different things.” It wasn’t until I got older that I realized that not being there in any way can be just as emotionally crippling as the volatile temper he possessed. Our relationship since has been a process of atonement, one that hasn’t worked out so well for anybody involved. It is only very recently that I began talking to my father again, after a two-year span of silence that began with me telling him, “If you don’t have anything productive to add, you should probably just fuck off.” For those of you reading this and wondering why, exactly, I’m talking about my relationship with my father, don’t worry: there is a point.
In my younger years, when looking to get into a band, I would find the album with the most songs. It was a bit of a character flaw which only served me well with Sebadoh’s Bubble & Scrape. When looking to get into The Mountain Goats, I was lead to the b-sides compilation Ghana, which I mistook for a proper album. I got through exactly one song (“Golden Boy,” which I still do not like), and decided that I was not a Mountain Goats fan. No harm done.
I was looking through the recommendation section of Amazon one day, and was pointed to The Sunset Tree, the most recent Mountain Goats record. I downloaded a copy on a whim, where it sat on my hard drive for a few months. One day, I decided it was about time to give the record a listen. To my surprise, this was nothing like the rough tape-hiss infected early output of John Darnielle; this was part of a new path he had been forging in recent years, most specifically with the semi-autobiographical We Shall All Be Healed, a long tale of drug addiction along the western coast. I was sucked in by the lush production, its gorgeous and understated orchestral swells on songs like “Pale Green Things” were perfect against Darnielle’s nasally singing voice, which became more and more infectious with every listen to the record. Still, there was never quite a point where the record clicked with me in the way that I was looking for, as a whole.
That was when I began to really listen to the lyrics and start to break them down. During this process I learned that The Sunset Tree was also autobiographical, this time about the abuse that Darnielle had suffered at the hands of his stepfather. Suddenly, the album came into clearer focus, and all of the tiny moving parts became one big thing, and this happened very quickly: the metaphorical “Lion’s Teeth” painted a stark picture of a vicious drunk, as did lines like “as i pulled into the driveway, the motor screaming out, stuck in second gear / the scene ends badly as you might imagine, in a cavalcade of anger and fear” in “This Year.” The comically dark lyrics of “Dance Music” (“…while my stepfather yells at my mother / launches a glass across the room straight at her head”) became a portrait of something familiar: a child using music as a salve, praying that it was enough to keep the demons at bay.
As I obsessed over the record, I buried myself in its first half, in love with the barking “Up The Wolves” (pardon the pun) and the tense cello stabs of “Dilaudid.” It wasn’t until I had become satisfied that I focused on the darkness that lay past “Lion’s Teeth”: “Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod” is crushing at times, being one of two songs on the record that doesn’t bother with the messiness of metaphor, and please forgive me here, because the only way to really capture the song is to recount the entirety of it:
You are sleeping off your demons
when I come home.
spittle bubbling on your lips,
fine white foam
I am young and I am good.
it’s a hot southern california day.
if I wake you up, there will be hell to pay.
And alone in my room,
I am the last of a lost civilization.
and I vanish into the dark
and rise above my station.
rise above my station.
But I do wake you up, and when I do
you blaze down the hall and you scream.
I’m in my room with the headphones on
deep in the dream chamber.
and then I’m awake and I’m guarding my face,
hoping you don’t break my stereo.
because it’s the one thing that I couldn’t live without
and so I think about that and then I sorta black out.
Held under these smothering waves
by your strong and thick veined hand,
but one of these days I’m going to wriggle up on dry land.
“Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod” is the spiritual sequel to “Dance Music,” where the kid who would drown out his parents’ fighting with his record player is a teenager who understands the limitations of things, and realizes that there are certain things in life that make life worth continuing, even in the face of everything else.
I was 14 when my mother and I moved from Seattle to Oregon, and from April to September of ’05, I was alone with my thoughts. It was during this time that I discovered The Sunset Tree, when I was at my most vulnerable: everything I had known in my life had been uprooted, and I was told that it was for the better, but I found this sentiment to be something of a fabrication. I took solace in my stereo, because it truly felt like the one thing I needed to stay alive at that point in my life. I have been told that misery loves company, but to me, it loves it in a completely different way: we all need someone who understands us sometimes, and I found that someone in an extremely unlikely place that understood that misery, enough that it made me realize that it was what was making me miserable in the first place.
The Sunset Tree ends on a relatively positive note with “Pale Green Things,” the other song on the record that drops the theatrics and just tells a story. In the song, Darnielle recounts a time where he spend a morning at the racetrack with his stepfather, and how this was the one experience that he could remember, when his sister informed him of his death:
My sister called at 3 AM
Just last December
She told you how you’d died at last, at last
That morning at the racetrack
Was one thing that I remembered
I turned it over in my mind
Like a living Chinese finger trap
The moments before this stanza came into focus were the last moments I spent where The Sunset Tree was only a record I enjoyed. The moment that I realized the weight of Darnielle’s words when he sung “at last” was the moment that every misplaced and unknown negative emotion I’d felt in the years leading up to that not only stopped being unknown, but but began being somewhat tangible things that could be worked out and fixed. I spent a lot of time letting that in, and once I did, I felt like I could begin healing. It was one of the first big steps that I took to not being a confused teenager.
During the month of this writing, I will likely be seeing The Mountain Goats for the very first time. I’ve had countless opportunities up to this point, but until this point in my life, I have found myself too scared to be in the same room as John Darnielle. More than almost any other musician (with the exception of Isaac Brock, perhaps), it is very likely that I owe my him my life, because that record allowed me to examine my own nameless struggle, give it a name, and begin to put it to rest.