After naming himself the Mountain Goats, songwriter John Darnielle's 15-year-long first act established him as the Bard of Blurt. His tightly-wound boombox masterworks spouted brainy koans over furious strums, mixing reflective humor and tounge-in-cheek pique. His second act began with 2002's Tallahassee, when he courted lusher sonics and devastating conceptual heft, elevating to high art a rotted romance in a fetid Floridian nowheresville. His follow-up, 2004's We Shall All Be Healed, examined friendship in a decaying indie milieu, and a year later on The Sunset Tree, the normally cagey Darnielle exorcised personal family demons. This time, he explores solitude and its ill effects — from heartbreak to paranoia to civic malaise. In Darnielle's hands, aloneness is duly stripped of all renegade brio and love-martyr schmaltz.
"Woke Up New," an ersatz calypso confessional, charts a painfully quotidian re-emergence from coupledom, while the more dire "Half Dead" counterpoints lyrical fatalism with agitated twang. Darnielle conjures vulnerability here by flipping his pointy voice into a cottony freak-folk falsetto, allowing the supernatural to seep in during "Maybe Sprout Wings" and "In the Hidden Places" when ominous cellos and dissonant strings suggest a haunted house of the mind. This dread can also spill into a kind of bad-town terror that seems ripped straight from Shirley Jackson's "The Lottery"; "New Monster Avenue" finds an edgy Darnielle predicting the moment when "All the neighbors come out to their front porches/Waving torches." Later, on "If You See Light," he takes a more stoic tack: "Waiting for the front door to splinter/Waiting all winter." Of course, the inveterate communitarian in Darnielle knows that the warm, understated presence of his band (particularly bassist Peter Hughes, pianist Franklin Bruno and cellist Erik Friedlander) coyly belies these barricaded sentiments.