Get Lonely (4AD, 2006)
by The Mountain Goats
originally published at Dusted Magazine
Two points, to begin with, that have become the de rigueur context when discussing the Mountain Goats. One: John Darnielle is a unique, novelistic, and exceedingly smart lyricist. Two: the records he makes now are of a different character than they once were. Happily, the second point – which can be traced back to Tallahassee in 2002, when he started recording for 4AD, inside a studio rather than into a cheap tape recorder, and when his songs began to shift from abstract to autobiographical – has hardly changed the first. Still, last year's The Sunset Tree, a moody reflection on Darnielle's early life with an abusive stepfather, felt surprisingly overblown in its candor. In reviving such profound things from so long ago, it sacrificed the obliquity with which he typically makes the mundane so expressive; it was, despite a handful of chilling and lovely moments, an album that succumbed to many of the adolescent pangs it sought to exorcise.
Get Lonely seems at first to be a similar proposition – a guileless, vaguely obsessive working-through of a difficult period, in this case the postmortem of a long romance – but it's afflicted by none of the problems of The Sunset Tree. That album actually lost momentum by taking diverse narrative approaches to old memories, courting the kind of 'creativity' that risks cheapening personal tragedy; this one is immediacy incarnate, a portrait of the artist while the scars are too fresh to allow for anything but crushing, first-person honesty. Darnielle's eye for detail and poetic skew are directed inward, at the empty house and the stagnating daily routine, and he's smart enough to skirt the big issue 90 percent of the time, so that the glimpses of frailty in the other 10 are all the more devastating. "The first time I made coffee for just myself, I made too much of it / And I drank it all, just 'cause you hate it when I let things go to waste," he murmurs in "Woke Up New," his voice less coarse than ever: "And I wandered through the house like a little boy lost at the mall / And an astronaut could have seen the hunger in my eyes from space."
Though it shares a certain quality of well-appointed austerity with its recent predecessors, Get Lonely also distinguishes itself melodically. The Sunset Tree called upon strings and horns and drums as though enlisting auxiliary powers to make peace with the past; here, the sparse, unadorned gloom seethes a sort of stuporous resignation. A handful of instruments are present, but the piano is damp and gauzy, the drums dull and distant, and the most affecting songs are the slow, airy ones with gently weeping guitar and mournful chamber strings. Eerie creaks float around in "Maybe Sprout Wings," the very picture of dreamy apathy, then reappear in "Moon Over Goldsboro," in the corners of the house that he still refers to with the plural possessive pronoun. The latter begins "I went down to the gas station / For no particular reason" – the way most every old Mountain Goats song begins, except stripped of all spirit and smirk. Darnielle does not tweak metaphors or ham up his rhymes, the way he used to revel in doing, and in a way his refusal to overreach is the most brutal part of the album.
By the same token, though, the same dignified demurral lends itself to Get Lonely's only real handicap: that it lacks the decadence, the epic sweep, of prior albums. These songs are so threadbare, so slight and unassuming, that only the filament of personal experience unites them, and the irony is that such a simple, earthly bond feels paltry in comparison to the sort of thematic mastery we know Darnielle to be capable of. There is little trajectory to the album, save the late swell of "Woke Up New," followed by the odd, hallucinatory "If You See Light"; after this two more songs simply begin, spend themselves, and die quietly. Get Lonely is not a powerhouse of melancholy (for which see anything from Elliott Smith to Automatic For The People), much less of anything else. It's more a slow assemblage of songs with, like Darnielle himself, no particular reason to move around.
But Get Lonely's last and best tragedy is in the syntax of its title: a clever imperative from Darnielle, ever the erudite bully, that reveals itself to be as solitary and personal as everything else herein. "I will get lonely / And gasp for air / And look up at the high windows / And see your face up there," in barely a whisper, is anything but a solicitation of empathy; the testament to Darnielle's talent as a songwriter is that he sucks you in anyway, with the opposite of effort. Your lost loves will not come back, but the morbid and exquisite plummet of losing them will, and rare is the artist that can make such a prospect as starkly comforting as it is here.back