Do goats get lonely? John Darnielle attempts to explain on the latest bucket drawn from his bottomless song well.
After experiencing indie rock mainstays the Mountain Goats new full-length, Get Lonely, you might wonder about the title. Is “Get Lonely” an imperative, demanding that you get to work on that little cabin by the pond you’ve been conjuring lately, or is it meant to complete a sentence as in, I don’t know, The Muppets Take Manhattan? Head Goat John Darnielle certainly doesn’t sound lonely on the record, surrounded by a seeming cast of thousands in comparison to his early, boom-box recorded early work. Regulars Peter Hughes and Franklin Bruno are here, assisted by cellist Erik Friedlander, drummer Corey Fogel, and producer Scott Solter, all contributing their deft instrumental touches to the quiet storm ambience. The Mountain Goats have been heading this way for a few records now, beefing up Darnielle’s stark, choppy songs with progressively headier production, but Get Lonely sounds ironically their warmest, most subdued, least lonely effort to date, at least on the surface.
First of all, Darnielle’s trademark clipped sing-speak delivery has evolved ever-so-slightly. Just after a pair of isolated piano chords open “Wild Sage”, Darnielle’s voice gently sweeps in over brushed drums and a barely strummed guitar. He still rarely allots more than a single beat per syllable, but the tone throughout is hushed, calm, reflective. Rather than barking or railing out his signature story-songs, Darnielle reins his performance in a bit, which makes considerable sense in context. Last year’s much-heralded The Sunset Tree was intensely personal and cathartic, the rare confessional record as moving for the listener as for its creator. Get Lonely retreats a few steps back from Sunset’s nakedness toward more enigmatic, though no less introspective, narratives. For that purpose Darnielle’s sweeter voice is a welcome evolution. Amazingly detailed lyrics can’t help but be the focal point of any Mountain Goats song, but for the first time, an effort seems to be made to deliver them using more seduction than blunt force.
“Woke Up New” collects what could be considered trivial moments from a post-break-up mess and reveals them to be anything but. “The first time I made coffee for just myself I made too much of it / But I drank it all just ‘cause you hate it when I let things go to waste / 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.” In whispery tones, Darnielle floats out these thoughts over a benign progression, reflecting the calm wisdom and perspective that sometimes accrue over time after shattered relationships. The details are specific and exact, offering the listener surprise as well as recognition, rather than being lamely “universal”. We know instantly, without overstatement, that the dazed wandering about the house is not just because of hyper-caffeination, but what preceded it. This is masterful storytelling, and Darnielle smartly matches subtlety of pen with that of voice.
Earlier songs like the excellent “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton” (from All Hail West Texas) were bleated over strident chords to where you couldn’t help but pay attention to every word. The music felt sometimes just the vessel to get the stories out, the binding of the book. On Get Lonely, it’s a little harder to hear every word because the songs can be appreciated that much more for their musicality. “If You See Light” hearkens back to the punchier days of Texas and The Coroner’s Gambit. But the organ, piano, and horn touches offer distractions that necessitate repeated listens to penetrate the song’s meaning -- and that’s a great thing. I don’t know if the constantly improving production of the Mountain Goats makes them more or less accessible. Longtime fans probably long for the lower-than-lo-fi days, while Entertainment Weekly is crossing their fingers for an orchestra and TV-movie cross promotions. But from the sound of Get Lonely, Darnielle is still drawing the maps and headed right where he wants to go.