By Tom Lynch
A chief complaint about the Mountain Goats’ drive into more produced, clean-cut records in recent years is that singer-songwriter John Darnielle’s delivery and message has lost some of the intimacy that made his past records grand with charm and melancholy. Some of that subsided last year with “The Sunset Tree,” possibly his best moment as a musician and his move towards more personal songwriting. But “Get Lonely,” Darnielle’s brand new record on 4AD, is his most intimate yet.
While “The Sunset Tree” chronicled the anger and angst of a young man and his mother who are abused and affected by a belligerent stepfather—and then the abuser’s eventual, sad and somber death—“Get Lonely” is more of a redemptive, bittersweet collection of tales in the aftermath, mostly soft moments full of Darnielle’s high-pitched whimper, sometimes accompanied by drums and atmospheric piano. It’s by far the subtlest of his many records under the Mountain Goats moniker.
“You know, I think it was sort of the inevitable thing after the last record,” Darnielle says of “Get Lonely”’s intimate nature. “[‘The Sunset Tree’] was intimate mainly in a different way—very intense, sort of white-knuckled. The feeling of this one is dark, but also soft, and I think that’s kind of where I lived after making the last album and spending a year playing and living with those songs. I also felt a pretty deep connection with the people who’d write me or talk to me at shows about ‘The Sunset Tree,’ and I felt like there was a sort of dark cave we might all flee to in the wake of that album, if that makes sense. As it turns out the dark cave is kind of a scary place, though.”
If you listen to “Get Lonely” and feel that it’s some sort of companion piece to “The Sunset Tree,” you’re not far off. “Well, ‘The Sunset Tree,’ those are songs mainly from the viewpoint of a young man in a desperate and intense situation,” Darnielle says. “There’s a lot of physical action in it, a lot going on. In a way ‘Get Lonely’ is more emotional—most of its action takes place in the minds and hearts of the people in the songs. It’s more about living and struggling with an internal state than coping with some really hard situations. I think most of the songs on ‘Get Lonely’ sort of presuppose some catastrophe in the past, but with the exception of ‘In Corolla’ [the record’s dark, immediate closer] the songs are about how the aftermath of that catastrophe feels.”
The feeling of catastrophe reaches its most poignant point with “Woke Up New”—the album’s best song, about the first day after a terrible breakup—in the lyric “The first time I made coffee for just myself, I made too much of it/but I drank it all, just cause you hated when I let things go to waste.” It’s a typical Darnielle lyric—bittersweet, a little humorous and, underneath, the saddest damn thing you’ve ever heard. To complement that sort of symbolic, gentle approach, Darnielle uses light strings, piano and other guitars. The addition of other instruments is never overbearing, as Darnielle has found a way to incorporate them and still keep the sound that herded in so many fans in the first place.
“I don’t know that the process of writing songs has really changed that much for me,” he says. “I think I’m better at it, but I still write in the same way—me and my guitar and notebook, sitting on the living-room floor working it out. I don’t hear other instruments when I write—my goal is to make something that will work on the guitar alone and to then offer it to Peter [Hughes, bassist] and Erik [Friedlander, cello] and see what they have to say about it musically.”
Darnielle says that he’s improved as a songwriter since his days of recording with a tape deck, the sounds of the reels looping on every song, as if they were another instrument or voice. “I think I write better mainly,” he says. “I mean, when you play your instrument a lot, you get better at it, so I can do things I couldn’t do before. I know more chords, can shade things a little more smartly, and so on. And I understand song structure a little better. I also am a lot more interested in subtler moods, which I know isn’t the most crowd-friendly way to be going, but that’s where my head is these days.”
Mountain Goats play September 15 at Empty Bottle, 1035 North Western, (773)276-3600, at 10pm. $14.