John Darnielle had a rocky home-life growing up, due to a violent stepfather. As is so sadly common with abuse victims, he turned to hard drugs to numb his own fear and rage, shooting heroin and crystal meth in his teenage years, a period he covers unflinchingly on the 2004 album ‘We Shall Be Healed’, and again briefly here in ‘Dance Music’, from the following year’s ‘The Sunset Tree’.
Darnielle – the core member of The Mountain Goats – started writing ‘The Sunset Tree’ a few months after his stepfather died, and it became an autobiographical record of an unhappy childhood. ‘Dance Music’ was one of the earliest songs he wrote, the lyrics coming while parked in a van in Paris, with the misleadingly jaunty music completed quickly five days later on the floor of John Peel’s studio before a session.
During an interview with Darnielle in 2013, Marc Maron referred to this song as “the doorway to it all”, and fittingly it opens with Darnielle in his childhood home in San Luis Obispo, “five years old or six, maybe.” He vividly paints the domestic unrest: the Watergate hearings buzzing from the television, a yelling match which sharply turns violent, and the scared dash upstairs to bury himself in music. It’s a hard story to listen to.
Verse two finds Darnielle now 17, in love and on hard drugs, watching his girlfriend spiral as “the special secret sickness starts to eat through you.” He follows her down the same alleyways before reason helps him pull out of this cycle. “There’s only one place this road ever ends up, and I don’t want to die alone”, he wails. The comfort of dance music remains his only constant throughout the horrible times, even soundtracking his arrest. The song ends as “the police come and get me”, the music skipping off into the sunset, Darnielle in handcuffs, his stepfather no doubt feeling safe somewhere.
“I wasn’t even ready for it, it wasn’t something I tried to do”, Darnielle told Maron of this flood of deeply personal songs, a cathartic reaction to his stepfather’s death. “It’s wonderful when your abuser dies”, he says at one point, by way of explanation, and Maron being the fiercely personal interviewer he is, asks one final question before changing the subject.
“So, do you forgive him?”
The answer is darkly comforting. “No. Which I hate about myself, but I don’t.”