"DISHES IN THE KITCHEN SINK!"
A long list of things in John Darnielle's step-house: tales of ordinary madness. The Sunset Tree is one long song sung to his past.
The title is obscure; perhaps it means "thrifty folk"; a household that has to repair its worn-out broom, (and sweep all sorts of things under the carpet). The food is no better than "fresh fuel for the sodium flares"; processed, salty crap that he gets his kicks out of burning.
It's more than Caulfieldiana. He's deeply affected by the mundane; depressed by untidiness and low-income ennui. But when he's "in your arms", "in the long tresses of your hair" this goes away. Things go elemental. He's a wild creature escaping out from under "the king of the jungle", an abusive stepfather. (We can find anything disturbing and anything profound.)
I'd thought that the arms he was saved by were his mother's, but in other places (Lion's Teeth) we see she's a stooge of his nemesis; 'You' is someone else. It's a bit of a leap to make Cathy (from "This Year") the object of each 'You' in the album, but let's make this leap. Love as exit door.
Every character is a fuckup whose future is nonetheless no bleaker than that of the planet we all inhabit. They aren't redeemed by Darnielle's love because he doesn't love a-one of them. But they are redeemed by his interest, in them and in the planet we all inhabit.
- Christgau, mistaken.
But this abuse escapism is tied to an uplifting, forward sound; a dirty car-exhaust bassline (a '36 Hudson?) propels a beautiful TV-theme piano intro into one of his signature staccato-block guitar lines. At 1:02 something like a back-masked accordion begins to siren the same six note pattern til the end. The piano keeps planting these emphatic, dignified chords into every other bar.
I don't want to imagine cover versions: Darnielle has an inimitable inimicability. But (though his fragile nasal frenzy is his own and only his own) he probably sings for you-as-a-teenager, too, no matter how little you were abused. Actually, I'm doing a crap job of lassoing him. It's a precise voice, not frenzied. Or: it's a demented fantasist, not autobiography. It's a deeply sincere voice, not a joke. Or: it's ironic, not sentimental. In any case: it's gotten milder in recent work, and he can breathe devastating things out casually: here, the terrible casual way he says "freeze to death".
The album is relentlessly comforting if you want to change, get over it, look forward (it's named after an optimistic Victorian hymn of renewal). But some things leave a mark that it takes a lifetime and maybe also a death to remove.
I was there on a Sunday, and observed the rigour with which the young people were taught to observe the Sabbath; they might not cut out things, nor use their paintbox on a Sunday, and this they thought rather hard, because their cousins the John Pontifexes might do these things. Their cousins might play with their toy train on Sunday, but though they had promised that they would run none but Sunday trains, all traffic had been prohibited. One treat only was allowed them--on Sunday evenings they might choose their own hymns.
In the course of the evening they came into the drawing-room, and, as an especial treat, were to sing some of their hymns to me, instead of saying them, so that I might hear how nicely they sang. Ernest was to choose the first hymn, and he chose one about some people who were to come to the sunset tree. I am no botanist, and do not know what kind of tree a sunset tree is, but the words began, "Come, come, come; come to the sunset tree, for the day is past and gone."' ...
"Very well, Ernest" said his father, catching him angrily by the shoulder. "I have done my best to save you, but if you will have it so, you will," and he lugged the little wretch, crying by anticipation, out of the room. A few minutes more and we could hear screams coming from the dining-room, across the hall which separated the drawing-room from the dining-room, and knew that poor Ernest was being beaten.
- Samuel Butler
Come, come to the sunset tree,
The day is past and gone,
The woodman's axe lies free,
And the reaper's work is done.
There shall no tempest blow,
No scorching noon tide beat,
There shall be no more snow,
No weary wand'ring feet.
And so we lift our eyes
From the hills our fathers trod
To the quiet of the skies
To the Sabbath of our God.
- Francis Weiland