by Alma R. 

CW: Detailed discussion of domestic violence, child abuse

As far as survival anthems go, The Mountain Goats’ ‘This Year’ is arguably the most well-known. If you check your Twitter feed on New Year’s Day, you’ll inevitably find a few people posting the iconic line “I am going to make it through this year if it kills me”.

Despite what listening to ‘This Year’ the figurehead track on the band’s ninth album The Sunset Tree might lead you to believe, much of The Mountain Goats’ music deals with darker themes: frontman John Darnielle never minces his words, whether he’s writing about addiction, mental illness, or relationships that crash and burn. I was unfamiliar with that fact for many years (even though The Mountain Goats existed in my musical orbit and I regularly screamed along to ‘This Year’ when I heard it on a playlist) until one of my favourite musicians, Dan Campbell of The Wonder Years, discussed his love for ‘Broom People’, the second track on The Sunset Tree, in a piece about his top 10 Mountain Goats songs.

When I listened to that song for the first time, something inside me clicked. I instantly recognised the experience Darnielle was relating, because it was also mine; the lyrics were arrows, and “friends who don’t have a clue / well-meaning teachers” hit bullseye. There are plenty of songs about surviving domestic violence, but that was the first time I had ever heard someone openly and precisely sing about healing from their upbringing. My first complete listen through The Sunset Tree felt like I was walking back through my childhood.  

The album’s thirteen tracks overflow with cues and themes that could easily be missed by people fortunate enough to be uninitiated to the experience, which is the core of child abuse; adults around you, the child, choosing to overlook signs and clues because the truth is uncomfortable or inconvenient for them. The second verse in ‘Broom People’ especially drives this point home: on the surface, “floor two-foot-high with newspapers / white carpet thick with pet hair / half-eaten gallons of ice cream in the freezer / fresh fuel for the sodium flares” seems to just refer to a cluttered house, but the meaning is far deeper than that when a parent is abusive, and especially when they abuse alcohol like in my own experience, it almost always leads to the home you live in falling into disarray. For anyone who’s looking, these should be warning signs, but it either gets written off as temporary messiness or the abuser will clean up their living space when someone comes around, in order to hide the reality. Fans have long been debating the meaning of the “fresh fuel for the sodium flares”, dissecting the line for a metaphor that, to me, couldn’t be more straightforward: there are usually warning signs in your environment which mean the abuse is about to ramp up: what might look harmless to others is a clear sign that things are about to get bad. By themselves these signs are meaningless, but when you grow up in those environments, you learn that every abuser has ‘tells’ of sorts: a sink full of dishes, cigarettes extinguished with water rather than in an ashtray, furniture moving overnight. 

At the time I first heard The Sunset Tree, I was dealing with being a domestic violence survivor a lot worse than I am now. The feeling of others overlooking the abuse I had been through didn’t stop when I made it out of my mother’s house. I was acutely aware that it made people uncomfortable and they desperately wanted to ignore it, and some of that is definitely because they wish they could have done more at the time; the rest of it is that when abuse is familial, other family members don’t want to reckon with the idea that someone they’re related to is a monster and they never noticed. And, if I survived well enough to make it to my twenties, I should surely be over it now and there’s no need to address it. But even worse than that was the sentiment that I would never be anything other than the result of what I had survived— I heard speech after speech from therapists about “the cycle of abuse”, and for a long time I was petrified I’d inevitably end up like my mother. I felt down to my bones that I’d never be ‘normal’ or able to move past it because of how heavy it was to carry; to hear about it from someone like Darnielle, who was in his late thirties when the album came out, changed the way I saw myself. 

Darnielle refuses to apologise for making people uncomfortable with his lived experiences and instead says look, you can know me as a person, but you have to contend with the fact fucked up shit happened to me. I had never seen anyone do that before; the societal narrative around abuse, especially parental, is that it’s a dirty secret victims will take to our graves. By refusing to take part in it, Darnielle takes back control of his own life and chooses to go forward at all costs. 

I became absolutely obsessed with The Sunset Tree, and watched numerous live performances; in one of them Darnielle introduces my personal favourite song on the album, ‘Hast Thou Considered The Tetrapod’, with the following speech: “This is one of those songs where, when I tell people what it’s about, they look really uncomfortable and they don’t laugh at the parts that I think are funny when I tell the story. Here, I’ll show you. So, this is one of those songs about how if you’re 13 and you live in a house where your stepfather beats your mother nightly — see, I told you. Some of us from these houses, we laugh when we remember these things. I don’t know why. If I figure out why, I’m gonna write a self-help book about it.

He was right; I did laugh at that, and a small percentage of the audience did too. And that’s okay. What felt like a heavy and dirty secret eating at me for far too long became something that is a part of me, but doesn’t have to define me; ultimately, The Sunset Tree is about accepting your past – no matter how ugly and bloody – and recovering. 

At the end of the day, anyone can listen to The Sunset Tree, but it can’t be separated from the fact that at its very core, it’s a love letter from an abused kid to other abused kids, which is reflected in the poignant liner notes:

Dedicated to any young men and women anywhere who live with people who abuse them, with the following good news:
you are going to make it out of there alive
you will live to tell your story
never lose hope

The album ends with a song about the death of the person Darnielle suffered abuse from. ‘She told me how you’d died at last / at last’, he sings in a gentle voice. Expressing this toward a parent would be seen as scandalous for the general population, but in this context, it’s triumphant: it’s knowing that the person who used to hurt and control you no longer can. It’s reclaiming being soft and light after it was taken from you when you couldn’t defend yourself. I haven’t reached my abuser’s death yet in my own life, but the sentiment resonates with me all the same.

In spite of everything, I’m going to live. And it’s going to be beautiful.