In 2005, The Mountain Goats released an emotionally rich album called “The Sunset Tree.” The entire album was full of references to John Darnielle’s painful childhood and the years of abuse from his late stepfather. Around the same time that this album was released, The Mountain Goats released a vinyl only alternate version called “Come, come to the Sunset Tree” that had stripped down songs that were just John with his acoustic guitar.
The song Dilaudid on the original album is an orchestral work. An assortment of strings leads you through the song as John sings about the pains of love and people trying to do things that they clearly aren’t capable of doing. Here is a video accompanied by the original version of the song. Contrast this with the stripped down version that John plays when he is on stage alone — it’s almost its own song. (The version from the vinyl, if you prefer that to hearing a live version is here)
We already know that there can be many different versions of the same song. I would like to now say that the essence of just about any contemporary song can be efficiently and effectively played with an acoustic guitar and a skillful set of hands that guides them. Let us now look at a few more songs and how they easily translate to the guitar.
To start, listen to the recording of This Year from The Sunset Tree and then compare it to the version on Come, Come to the Sunset Tree. The standard version is of course excellent but the stripped down version, so to speak, focuses you on the two most important aspects of the song: the guitar line and the lyrics of the song itself. It serves as a sort of magnifying glass for these two important parts of the song.
One of my favorite songs of all time is the Bohemian Rhapsody by Queen. If any song in my mind has the capability of being a lush tapestry of sound, this is definitely one of the better ones. Yet it too can be stripped down to a beautiful solo acoustic guitar — one being played by someone who learned to play it from a DVD, no less.
In their later years, The Beatles were also known for amazing orchestral arrangements of instruments. I am quite fond of the song Across the Universe through its fantastic lyrics and the beautiful music that sweeps underneath them. If you like that, you will love the version that features nothing but vocals and an acoustic guitar.