The Mountain Goat’s John Darnielle is like the kid at the open mic who just wouldn’t quit. Armed with nothing more than a grim determination to exhaustively articulate himself through folk song, Darnielle has made it to where no open mic’er has ever been allowed to tread. The Mountain Goats discography is large enough that, pushed way under your bed, cassettes, compilations, and 7” singles would be spilling out your bedroom door and into the hallway.
The Goats’ newest release, Get Lonely, is a sad, sad affair. In track one, Darnielle begins the story, sketching a battered and bruised character “headed vaguely eastwards, into the sun.” This is an anti-progression, a character headed back towards a sun that’s about to go back over his head. Darnielle’s voice here is quiet, shaky, and hitting the higher notes with a good deal of hesitance. Instead of reaching for new notes, he voices them differently, as if singing with the character’s voice instead of his own. A gray, fall morning is described, and this same basic imagery is used throughout. While this is no groundbreaking metaphor, there is a mixture of abstract (“an angel’s voice, like marbles bouncing off of glass”) and straightforward (“like a bounty hunter was on my tail”) that give the lyrics both freshness and context.
When Darnielle sang about self-destruction on past albums, it was diffused in order to lighten the impact. By softening the edges with ambiguity or humor, self-destruction was turned into something productive, or at least interesting. He went even so far to embrace it on some songs, and by doing so, unlocked it’s noble, cathartic power. In Get Lonely, however, it’s as if the fruitful pursuit of darkness is over, and it turns out it’s pretty dark in there after all. In the title track, Darnielle’s voice is deflated, sapped of energy. He describes going life mechanically, trying to find some substance in pure animal existence, but all he can do with any resolve is “get lonely.” The song is sparse and quiet, and most noticeably, there’s no momentum to it. It’s like the punching bag Darnielle has been knocking around for the last fifteen years has finally fallen over for good.
There is a lack of excitement pervading the songs that makes Get Lonely a difficult listen. Darnielle has traded in shouts for whispers, as well as melody for affectation. Get Lonely has two powerful, cheery sounding hooks, on the third and ninth tracks, but the rest exists in minor chords and subtle notes. While the production is arguably more comprehensive than any Goats album, it is subdued, allowing the actual words to do a brunt of the work. Percussion roils and bubbles but never surfaces on “Maybe Sprout Wings”; in “Moon Over Goldboro”, cello and bass work together in bonding the verses together. “If You See the Light” has a lot of stuff happening for a Goats songs, including trumpet, but songs like In “The Hidden Places”, with it’s creeping atmospheric string sounds and veiled bass, is more typical of the overall sound.
On the final track, Darnielle hits the power switch at the studio, puts his acoustic guitar on his lap and shows you why he’s the best open mic artist of all time. In one of his most popular earlier tracks, “No Children”, a defiant, bitter character stares death in the face, threatens it, and goes down with a smirk. But now, on “In Corolla”, the character is sinking to death and unable to feel much of anything. Framed by the same “sinking” sun over the Atlantic, he gathers his final strength for a small prayer, an afterthought, that others might fare better than he. It’s a quiet, whimpering end to a story barely whimpering to begin with, and so damn sad that you’ll realize the album title can be read in two different ways.