Apparently, a few of you noticed I buried this song after all the Depeche Mode talk last week. You’re right, it deserves some highlighting of its own. John Darnielle is a special songwriter.
In 2005, Darnielle wrote one of his more (most?) autobiographical albums. The Sunset Tree is largely about his childhood. He dedicated it to his abusive stepfather, a not-so-friendly drunk who made life for his family harder than it needed to be.
The savior, as it so often is, was music for Darnielle.
The record starts with him in a hotel. He’s got baby aspirin and wine coolers. He’s alone. Making promises to the lord, reflecting on the truth.
He starts taking us back in time. He puts us in the house, filled with junk and unfulfilled intentions. He tells us about the “Friends who don’t have a clue” and “well-meaning teachers.”
And then we get to the anger. And then we get to the prayers. And then we get to the 17 but not 18 yet declaration, “I am gonna make it through this year if it kills me.”
After the fights, smashed glasses, and forced hiding, where he’d “lean in close to my little record player on the floor / so this is what the volume knob’s for / I listen to dance music / dance music.”
He wants to face the man. To stop the lion. At one point he tries to take the metaphorical tooth out of the monster’s jaw because “There’s no good way to end this / anyone can see / there’s this great big you / and little old me / and we hold on / for dear life, we hold on / we hold on.”
Darnielle turns universes over in these songs. Where there is love, where there’s an absence. How it’s all confusing, even when it’s all so clear. What it’s like to feel all of the feelings, what it’s like to surrender them, and then, what it’s like to surrender to them.
It culminates in a form of forgiveness. Not a righteous kind. More like an acknowledgment of what was. That there’s a new day, with fresh dew on the grass. Each blade a life of its own, another one of those “pale green things.”
It’s a 40ish minute album that plays like a short movie. It’s catchy enough to be stuck in your head, make you smile, and haunt you at the same time.
I know a lot of people were trotting “This Year” out during the pandemic, and for good reason. But, if you never gave the whole album a shot, do it. It’s Darnielle’s Ham On Rye.
(here are a few samples for you to, well, sample. If you need a pristine voice, Darnielle is… maybe not that. Get over it, it’s him and it’s honest):