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Getting His Goat 

John Darnielle makes music about survival

The Mountain Goats are not new. Musician John Darnielle donned the moniker in 1991 when he began releasing cassettes on the Shrimper label. Those albums - and there are at least 10, not counting the 7-inches, EPs and compilation tracks - were recorded in the most austere of lo-fi circumstances, largely with just Darnielle playing acoustic guitar singing into a Panasonic boom box.

He didn't care about the fidelity. His focus was the songs, and only a songwriter of Darnielle's talent could get away with it. You'd be hard-pressed to find another artist whose songs offer such rich metaphors, bits of detail and well-captured stories. But despite the quality of his work, he might've remained a cult act had he not signed with 4AD and released his magnum opus, Tallahassee.

Over the course of the album, Darnielle, who's always loved song cycles, unfolds the sordid story of a couple of alcoholics on the verge of either implosion or explosion. Full of wit and dark foreboding, the album topped several year-end best-of lists.

In addition to representing a songwriting triumph, the album also marked a musical development for Darnielle. It's still primarily driven by Darnielle's percussive acoustic strum, but it was his first effort to be recorded entirely in a real studio.

Last year's We Shall All Be Healed was even richer sonically, with fully fleshed arrangements provided with the help of John Vanderslice. Lyrically, Darnielle had dug into his own life for the first time to offer up tales of burned-out tweakers and broken dreams.

He embraces that autobiographical approach even more on his latest, The Sunset Tree. It tells the story of his childhood years, growing up with an abusive stepfather. "The last record was really 'toes in the water,'" he says from his Durham, N.C., home. "All the names and locations were changed and it was sort of drawing on autobiographical stuff as source stories. There weren't any straight autobiographical stories on it, and then I just ran with that and said, 'What's next?' I wrote four of the songs over in Europe, going into the Peel Session, and they came out so good that it seemed pretty clear that was the way forward, as they say in England."

Though the subject matter is dark, the album is buoyed by dynamic arrangements and Darnielle's graceful, lyrical aplomb. It's a chronicle of the tough time of young adulthood - rebellion, sexual possibility - mediated by the lingering background presence of Darnielle's abusive stepfather.

"It's difficult enough getting through teenage years without difficulties at home," he says. "All of this happens during that time."

But whether penning a "Song for Dennis Brown," the late coke-addled reggae star, or imagining his slumbering stepfather as an ogre with "spittle bubbling on his lips," Darnielle reminds the listener of the resilience of the human soul. "There's nothing you can do to somebody," he says, "that [will make it so that] they won't want to go on."

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