Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Only the Lonely

Get Lonely, The Mountain Goats, 4AD, 2006

I wasn’t sure, the first time I listened to The Mountain Goats’ fourth studio album, Get Lonely, whether or not I liked it entirely. To be fair, I always like The Mountain Goats, though I have albums that I like a bit less than others (We Shall All Be Healed, their second studio album for instance). By the second and third listen, I was sure I liked it, but I liked it in a particular way.

Some albums are day-time listening; this is quite clearly a night-time album, a cycle of songs composed during the bare light of nearly morning to be listened to while driving by yourself down some dark highway or sitting in a dark room somewhere. This is an album that is both cold intentionally throughout with its lyrics, its empty beds, its shadowy hills and dark yards, but it is also not an album that you warmly dive into and are caught up by, the gripping type of music that won’t let you go. Even the CD’s packaging underscores the nocturnal aspect of these songs, the CD and cover embossed with lunar landscapes, while over that on the front, a solitary boxer cropped so as to be fighting against no one, merely in stance, swinging away alone.

Get Lonely is indeed just that, an album about loneliness and isolation. For long-time fans of John Darnielle, this CD comes off more like an album long variation on the plucked version of the last song of his doomed couple cycle, “Alpha Omega.” A song-for-song meditation on being alone after a break up, Get Lonely can be seen as the true follow-up/aftermath of The Mountain Goats first studio foray, Tallahassee, itself an album long visit with this so-called Alpha Couple.

After the frank intensity of the preceding album, The Sunset Tree, an examination of Darnielle’s relationship with his abusive step-father, the man is entitled to a more somber, more reflective, less personal piece. Every album can’t be a yearly bearing of your wounds and your soul, and The Mountain Goats have never — or very rarely — ever been about such personal stories. Even if, paradoxically, the stories Darnielle told in his little vignettes of diseased and decaying love and life reverberated deeply in the psyches of his listeners.

While there are no stand-out songs that defiantly grab you and make themselves yours (like “No Children,” the track most shouted out for live, displacing “Going to Georgia” in that regard), there are the usual riches of arresting lines such as “And then I think I hear angels in my ears/Like marbles being thrown against a mirror” and “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” and “Ghosts and clouds/Nameless things/Squint your eyes and hope real hard/Maybe sprout wings” is the almost magical longing chant of the song those last three words give title to.

Lyrically, there are an immense number of “And...” constructions as though the singer were tugging at our sleeve, as though a bit overwhelmed by everything, one thing after another, and he needed to list them for us so we will understand. At the same time, it is that lost little boy evoked in “Woke Up New” stuttering through a recitation of the large and frightening world around him, “and...and...and...”

The title track includes the lines “And I will find a crowd and blend in for a minute/And I will try to find a little comfort in it/And I will get lonely and gasp for air/And send your name up from my lips like a signal flare.” It’s one of those moments where even while the language is plain and hardly arresting, there is something throat-clenching in the delivery that transforms those words right out of their very commonality, setting them right down on your heart like an immovable weight.

In other places there may be better writing found than the chorus to “Half Dead” which runs “Can’t get you/out of my head/Lost without you/Half dead.” It’s a bit poppier, a bit prettier, but likely conveys the sense Beck wanted so much to capture (and did in part) in his breakup album Sea Change.

Musically, too, this album is quieter, more spare and isolated. It is as if you stumbled into a lone, last set at some near deserted coffee shop and found the musicians playing more for themselves than anyone else. Darnielle, partly by design and partly by the happenstance of his lo-fi early career, has always known just how to add a fraction of instrumentation to evoke much more. Listen to the very few notes on the vibraphone in “Song for Lonely Giants” and you can hear how just a small scale can draw out more emotion than a whole orchestra at times. There are slight piano tinklings as well as fully played moments as well.

The band is again joined by Erik Friedlander, who delivered a scabrous chopping orchestration to “Dilaudid” from The Sunset Tree, returning with his melancholic cello for “Moon Over Goldsboro” among others. This song is perhaps the most haunted of all the tracks, the final stanzas find the narrator returning home, the woman still there, but waking alone, and you find yourself wondering if this is the ghost flitting throughout the album lyrically and tonally.

While Get Lonely is unlikely to find as many new listeners as The Sunset Tree did and unlikely to garner the kind of fan fervor that surrounds Tallahassee, it’s a worthy continuation of a career. It remains part of the transformation of the song writer here, a shift to a kind of more polished story-telling that lacks the raw visceral personal quality more evident on the home recordings, but makes up for it in craftsmanship and subtlety. Too often the subtle whisper or croon is neglected in favor of the raucous shout. Get this one alone somewhere.

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