The Mountain Goats

Get Lonely

(4AD; 2006)

By Christopher Alexander | 21 October 2007

John Darnielle is tired. He tells his audience in Seattle's Easy Street Records, some three thousand miles from his home in South Carolina, that the time-difference is killing him: "it feels like 2AM for me." It's going to be a strange night. By its end, he will have gotten into (and win) a fight with a drunken heckler, some OG hater who wants the old stuff (and has it catalogued by album and track number); some woman with blonde dreadlocks will climb onto the stage during "Woke Up New," and drink from his water bottle, causing him to abandon the song; he will forget how two of his songs go, in mid-song; he will have performed "Going to Georgia," deservedly his most famous song from one of his earliest albums (1995's Zopilote Machine). I'm very surprised to hear it -- a year ago he all but disavowed the song from the stage of Olympia's Clipper. When he sings it tonight, with a holler, he seems bullied into it somehow, as if it were a peace offering.

Maybe it was the jet lag, or the weird vibrations from the audience; maybe it was because he knew that the job in front of him was to perform songs from Get Lonely, an unapologetic downer of a record that might fly about as well as a wooden duck. He performs them quietly, too quietly: his voice is barely above a whisper, then it is only a whisper. He hardly touches his guitar. Darnielle is not one for stage fright, and this isn't his nerves betraying him, but one gets the impression that he is absolutely terrified of this material. It's as if he's performing the songs this low because if they were any louder, they'd topple him. As it is, I'm not sure he's succeeding: he's frozen by his own songs, like they're right on top of him and it's unendurable. It's riveting, it's good, but it's absolutely unheard of at a Mountain Goats show. Everyone is quiet, standing on their toes to get a better listen.

Small wonder: Get Lonely is one of the most forbidding albums I own, up there with, like, Leonard Cohen's Songs of Love and Hate (1971) or something. I'm sure that's a funny thing to say about a record that could be right at home in your neighborhood hyper-capitalist cafe. The acoustic guitar is lightly strummed, the vocals are high and breathy, splashes of piano and strings accent some things, a bass guitar is mixed low. Well, there are signifiers, signs, and then the thing itself, and this thing itself has nothing to do with any of those accouterments: it's unbelievably cold, bitter, and depressing. People point to Radiohead or Nirvana or The Cure when they complain about depressing music, but they're merely mistaking general artistic narcissism for it. Those bands make music that is eternally alive, whatever their creators' afflictions may be. The music opens itself to the audience in any number of ways: Thom Yorke's wail, Kurt Cobain's melodies, the bassline to "Fascination Street." Get Lonely pointedly closes itself off, and not in any way that is easy to detect (arty experimentalism, lack of strong melodies, four vinyl sides featuring twenty-six minutes of feedback). It's hermetically sealed in, as oddly detached as a suicide note. Kid A and In Utero could be read as musical suicide notes, too, but they desperately wanted to be caught and talked out of it. Get Lonely has made up its mind.

This is, in short, negation. Writing and performing as The Mountain Goats, Darnielle has made a career out of immediate affirmation. As recently as June, Mountain Goats shows were nothing so much as a singalong at your neighborhood roughneck bar (albeit one populated by polite kids with badges on their jeans). No sentiment was too hostile, sweet or inane to be shouted: I will love you again when the Cubs win the World Series, ha-ha; where did that monkey come from?; I hope you die and I hope we both die; the only thing I know is that I love you and I'm holding on -- yeah! Older records were recorded on boomboxes or ADATs, reinforcing that sense of immediacy, like Darnielle was singing directly to the listener. There are no slogans found on Get Lonely. Whereas the sublime vision of a waiting lover in "Going to Georgia" is introduced by the impossibly quotidian "The most remarkable thing about you standing in the doorway / is that it's you, and you're standing in the doorway," that image is deliberately soured on the desolate "Moon Over Goldsboro." The narrator stops in his doorway, reflecting on the first day he crossed it with his now-estranged wife "until the vision got too vivid to bear."

Darnielle said that this the record was his attempt to "go down the rabbit hole" of the despair and bleakness that bubble beneath the surface of many of his songs. There are myriad references to someone leaving, which has prompted some to characterize this as a break-up record. He made a point of correcting this assumption at Easy Street, relating that he was inspired by the psychiatric patients he used to nurse. "These are people you knew in high school who were funny and bright and articulate. But one day, a switch goes off or something, and they just go away back inside themselves." This gives things a much darker hue than a break-up, like on "Woke Up New." All signs point to the everyman carrying on his comically mundane life: he puts on a sweater, he makes too much coffee, drinks it anyway "because I know you hate it when I let things go to waste" (the thing not said: maybe she'll come back). Taking nothing away from Eric Sams' expert write-up of the song, that confusion, that nebulous and tentative feeling is the key to something far graver than a break-up. The first thing he feels when he wakes up without "you" is "free" -- one wonders that someone waking up without the voices from paranoid schizophrenia would be a thrill, but followed shortly thereafter by fear, which is exactly what this character feels. (And the thing not said, maybe she'll come back, "and what do I do without you," "and I began to talk to myself, not used to being the only person there." There's a clinical term we critics like to use for this: yikes.)

Darnielle has always had empathy for his characters, even if, like Randy Newman before him, he was capable of mild cruelty in his humor. But there's nothing funny about this subject: the heartbreaking "Wild Sage" finds someone freaking out on the side of a major thruway "where unlucky stray dogs bleed," being confused when someone asks him if he's okay. "Somedays I think I'll feel better if I tried harder," he confesses in the song's bridge, "somedays I know it's not true." The person in "Half Dead" "trie(s) to think like a machine / ... not to wonder what it all means" while he sits at his usual spot along the street, convinced the cars are speaking to him in code. I confess to having no idea if there is a plot or story arc, like last year's staggering The Sunset Tree. The album ends with a suicide "In Corolla," and I know nothing that makes suicide as believable and even beautiful as his lines do here ("I tried to summon a little prayer as I went under / it was the best that I could do / and I said, / 'let them all fare better than your servant' / the reeds all pricking at my skin / 'here's hoping they have better luck than I had down here with you' / all that water rushing in"), but aside from general themes like coldness and loneliness, I can see no story, nothing where something breaks.

I think it's too soon to tell how this record will hold up in the Mountain Goats' catalogue -- as a point of real departure or an anomaly. Darnielle's talent as a writer is deepening, and he still can write lines that pull the floor out from the listener. It's a fair question whether the listener will stick around: Get Lonely is a record that requires multiple listens (itself a first) but which absolutely forbids them -- I've been unable to listen to it in one sitting after a month. Not out of its weakness or my boredom, but in its relentless despair and my weakness. Even The Sunset Tree, an album about child abuse and teenage drug addiction, had something like "This Year." This is the tightrope act of negation: do we applaud the technique when it leaves us cold? Or, perhaps more accurately, do we applaud the technique when it asks us to go places that most of us, I imagine, are not ready to go? Including, with his whispers and falsettos, Darnielle himself?

A closing note about the reviewer's own frailty: "Moon Over Goldsboro" makes me afraid to go to sleep. It could just be the recurrent insomnia (yeah, "just") but I swear that it has more to with the chord that Darnielle hits when he gets to the line, "always wake up alone." It's a major chord in a minor progression, and it gives the song a suspension and tension that is sudden. It's meant to hit like any one of his lines, and it does, hard. In that instant, whenever I listen to it, I am that character. I hallucinate an old lover waiting in bed for me, or maybe it's no one but my own imagination, I'm not sure now, but whatever the case I "spend all night in the company of ghosts / always wake up alone." Darnielle's words are the only ones that can take me to that place, and sometimes, I can really punch him for it.