The Mountain Goats Get Lonely

[4AD; 2006]

Styles: literate folk rock, the superhero version of that poor sap at the coffeeshop
Others: Charlie McAlister, John Vanderslice, Neutral Milk Hotel, Okkervil River

Being a Mountain Goats fan is a bit like collecting coins — you gather up hundreds of variations on what is essentially the same nearly weightless little object; only, with these songs, it's as if the dignitaries on the faces of the coins can tell you each of their momentary joys and agonies in bright, human(ist) detail. Thanks to his prolificacy, one of the pleasures of befriending any new Mountain Goats record is watching how John Darnielle's storylines and personae have criss-crossed and unraveled since the days of the (highly collectible!) Shrimper cassettes. As a critic, he pays careful attention to a song's context in album, scene, and historical moment; as an artist, his own work repays a similar interest in the listener.

Get Lonely is rife with subtle transitions: sunset to moonrise to daybreak; togetherness to solitude; raw acoustics to pretty studio artistry. It seems to be in direct dialogue with its predecessor, last year's riotous and beautiful The Sunset Tree. The cover of that record depicted — logically enough — the sun setting behind a tree. This one has a moonscape as its background. TST concluded with the moving "Pale Green Things," a song rich with plain images of seaweed and sawgrass. Get Lonely transforms that humble finale into a clever segue by opening with "Wild Sage," a number that describes the loneliness of a narrator who wanders along a highway and looks at the plants sprouting around him[1]. TST was an intense, violent description of togetherness: it's got bruises from the rough intimacies of abuse and the refuges one seeks from it. By contrast, Get Lonely is a breakup album. Its central character putters about the house and neighborhood, looking at his hands, dodging his memories, acting "like a desperate policeman, searching for clues."[2] He suffers from sadness, paranoia, and, of course, loneliness, but in such an unselfish, poised way that the sympathy you feel for him goes far beyond basic pity — you fucking identify.

Since Tallahassee, Darnielle has gradually embroidered his songs with more and more accompaniment from accomplished partners like Scott Solter, Franklin Bruno, and ever-present bassist Peter Hughes, but Get Lonely seems to be the first record where he and his bandmates have made a conscious effort to let the tasteful production do some of its own storytelling, rather than occasionally adding an unassuming flourish to Darnielle's guitar and wailed lyrics. The narrative and the music crest on "in the hidden places," the song where our hero finally catches sight of his lost love while the strings menace and enchant, and a muted electric guitar chucks beneath Darnielle's almost airless voice and patient guitar patterns. Listening to Darnielle singing quietly in this graceful, melancholy sonic environment (horn sections, string arrangements from Erik Friedlander, organ, guitar arpeggios) is a bit like seeing my little sister in makeup and a prom dress for the first time: I looked on her loveliness with bittersweet admiration, remembering the bygone era of missing front teeth and Kool-Aid stained overalls. Her (its) poise was (is) startling.

Making the adjustment to the newly nubile Darnielle doesn't take long, as nearly all of his perennial themes and techniques are in play here. His deft admixture of unadorned emotion with simple, accurate, and flooring imagery endears you to his narrators and affirms, yet again, his skill as author and poet. The narrator mentions warming his lips against a coffee mug, pulling his sleeves down over his hands, tracing pictures on a steamy mirror and then says, "My number's finally coming up." The details make you care; the cliché makes you believe.

It's just such prudent use of writerly artifice that makes Darnielle's stories seem so authentic. The man has a seemingly endless number of ways to build songs from roughly fourfive folk tropes: the weather, foliage, facial expressions, and the road. Throw in coffee, liquor, and a broken relationship or two, and you've got the skeleton of a Mountain Goats record.

Get Lonely is rich proof that the flesh he's putting on those bones is becoming more and more supple and scarified as the years go by. The desperation of the characters here is quieter and more local[3] than it ever has been before, but no less intoxicating. Goat devotees should be most satisfied with this addition to the collection, and the uninitiated could find worse places to start. Bravo, John.

[1] Perhaps the title is also a description of the narrator himself: a wild sage, as it were.

[2] Or, judging by the cover, a pugilist-in-training, boxing shadows, punishing himself in preparation for the pain to come. (Check out Darnielle's boxing blog)

[3] cf. album closer "In Corolla" — instead of adding to the interminable "going to" series, JD writes a song where a narrator actually inhabits a place rather than restlessly traveling from one to another. All Hail West Texas is arguably another "local" record, but the characters in that one are in constant motion, riding motorcycles, going to vacation homes, correctional facilities, P.O. boxes, etc. etc. They travel; the poor guy in Get Lonely just wanders.