The Mountain Goats
alloween, 2005: John Darnielle—the Mountain Goats, more or less—is standing onstage at the Knitting Factory in New York singing “Against Pollution.” It opens with the line “When I worked down at the liquor store, guy with a shotgun came raging through the place / Muscled his way behind the counter, I shot him in the face.” He sings it like it’s no big deal but god damn it, it’s so obviously a big-deal line. The gap in his expression is where I’m supposed to fall, and I do. For Halloween, John is dressed as a priest. By the end of the song, his left boot is on the monitor and he’s gazing out at the pulpit like he’s birthing a power ballad. The irony kills me but his passion resurrects me. Like the Bible, the pious know the words. Worse, they believe in them. My friend Amanda is checking her Blackberry; it is the closest I have ever come to hitting a woman, I swear.
Mountain Goats songs are anchored by moments of emotional focus, climax, and transcendence. That John Darnielle is known to love heavy metal—a riotous shit-pit for happy snouts in search of the 19th century sublime—makes good sense. The Mountain Goats aren’t indie-folk, they’re Christian/other. But Get Lonely isn’t transcendent; it’s a grey, opaque record about the most banal human experience next to the capitalist workweek—heartbreak.
People in Mountain Goats love songs make scenes. They fly flags of self-obsession and instability and they break things and go broke and act like asses. This is called “narcissism” and it makes love difficult. Tallahassee’s “Oceanographer’s Choice” wondered, “What will I do when I don’t have you to hold on to in the dark?” Get Lonely answers: He manages to wake up and sweep his house and feel very fucking proud of himself for doing so; he gets Home Alone-level excited about making too much coffee after his girlfriend moves out; he secretly applauds himself for stepping halfway through his front door without collapsing in tears, which only happens sometimes. This is called “taking care of yourself” and can be—and in this case, is—an advanced form of narcissism.
Get Lonely doesn’t have the full force of any albums in the Mountain Goats catalog. That’s fine. It doesn’t have shout-along choruses or idiosyncratic references; it doesn’t have many great melodies. Ironic distance—a quality he usually brings out through melodrama or cleverness—is muted. He once said that he started the writing process by looking at maps, but on “Wild Sage” he calls out business 15-501 by name—a road that runs through his current home of Durham, North Carolina. Whereas he’s always sung about Passionate Losers, now he’s singing as one.
As he settles into making studio albums (in contrast to his pre-Tallahassee boombox recordings), his arrangements get more sophisticated and accommodating, but they all fade into the background. The strings are gossamer, vibraphone hangs like mist over the clarity of his guitar; the relatively feeble cello plinks in “Woke Up New” are, as anchors go, totally pathetic, and the jazz drums that breeze through “New Monster Avenue” robs the song of all traction. All his vocals are quiet now. He used to make a single track sound like a hawk, and now he takes a backing band to sound like a loose arrangement of pigeons in park trees at night. This will reasonably piss plenty of people off, but the timidity of the album is suited to its subject: every day is a birth, and the nerves take a long time to get used to the shock.
On 1995’s “Nine Black Poppies,” he sang “Someone was changing from the inside out / And I turned. Around. To face you.” “Against Pollution” was a tidal shift because it gives the scene away—“I shot him in the face.” Banality comes to present its own version of horror; the other half of the broken relationship in Get Lonely shows up once, on “In the Lonely Places”: “Saw you on the crosstown bus today / You were reading a magazine, I turned my face away and shut my eyes tight”—anything, please, anything less paralyzingly routine than seeing her reading a magazine on the bus.
Most striking is the album-closing “In Corolla,” which is either about a suicide or a baptism, it doesn’t really matter. “Quito,” from We Shall All Be Healed, envisioned an addict’s flayed heart spewing loose promises of redemption and forgiveness, surrounded by singing children. It was drunk talk. “In Corolla,” like most of Get Lonely, has no cast of characters. It’s resolute and composed. The church doesn’t smile on suicide, and the narrator knows that the prayer he says as he goes under is just dramatic framing—he doesn’t really care about god. Because even if it’s supposed to be a solo baptism, it sounds like something you do as a teenager on a one-day runaway from home. Finally, irony; it hurts like hell.