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Sunday, November 23, 2014 
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+ Donato Wharton - Body Isolations
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+ Bob Dylan - Modern Times
+ Excepter - Alternation
+ Chris Thile - How To Grow A Woman From The Ground
+ Brad Mehldau - Live in Japan
+ M Ward - Post-War
+ Various Artists - Touch 25
+ The Mountain Goats - Get Lonely
+ The White Birch - Come Up For Air
+ Camera Obscura - Let's Get Out of This Country
+ Coachwhips - Double Death
+ Various Artists - Tibetan And Bhutanese Instrumental And Folk Music, Volume 2
+ Giuseppe Ielasi - Giuseppe Ielasi
+ Cex - Actual Fucking
+ Sufjan Stevens - The Avalanche
+ Leafcutter John - The Forest And The Sea
+ Carla Bozulich - Evangelista
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+ The Moore Brothers - Murdered By The Moore Brothers
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+ Sonic Youth - Rather Ripped
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+ Glissandro 70 - Glissandro 70
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #2)
+ Calexico - Garden Ruin (Review #1)
+ The Flaming Lips - At War With The Mystics
+ The Glass Family - Sleep Inside This Wheel
+ Various Artists - Songs For Sixty Five Roses
+ The Fiery Furnaces - Bitter Tea
+ Motorpsycho - Black Hole/Blank Canvas
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+ Sondre Lerche And The Faces Down Quartet - Duper Sessions
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The Mountain Goats
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Get Lonely
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Each year, as August wanes, I begin looking for the record that will be my autumnal soundtrack. It takes something special to fill this void. For three months, the angle of the sun makes memory tangible. Colors turn warmer. The air grows colder. Smells of the decaying natural world permeate, and yet somehow bring comfort. Maybe it's only the lingering aftershocks of student life, but fall opens up gaping holes in my heart.

And so I take to the streets in search of solace. Walks punctuated by bare trees and evergreens; a brisk breeze and the golden sun in my eyes make good companions. For as long as I can remember, aimless sojourns have been my salve. Likewise with music. And now, with the advent of the MP3 player, I can combine the two. I am lucky this year, for I've found my autumn album before September's even come: Get Lonely.

In "In Corolla," John Darnielle sings about "...when my transformation comes," and certainly, a transformation of sorts has come over the Mountain Goats. In preparation for this review, I've been listening to a great deal of their back catalog. Darnielle's songs have previously been marked by urgency, a touch of anger, and a fluent, disfigured vernacular. In this regard, Get Lonely is a bit of a departure, neither as immediate nor as emphatic as its predecessors. Lyrically, in place of acute reckoning, we have wide-eyed observation.

"Walk down the soft shoulder and I count my steps/ Headed vaguely eastward/ Sun in my eyes/ And I lose my footing and I skin my hands, breaking my fall/ And I laugh to myself and look up at the sky." Stringing together the observations of "Wild Sage" in real time surreptitiously slips the listener into the narrator's shoes. Empathy is seldom so deftly maneuvered — it is as if whatever happens to the character happens to the audience throughout the record. But to think Get Lonely relies merely upon rote observation would be a mistake, because it is also scattered with powerful imagery. For instance, in "Half Dead" we find a combination of the two: "Took my spot at the window/ Looked out at the road/ Dots and dashes of traffic/ Like a message in code..." Here, Morse code (which, thanks to countless disaster films we now associate solely with distress calls) takes on a symbolic significance. Referencing "dots and dashes" makes even something as mundane as traffic patterns underpin the narrator's dread of loss.

This quiet dread — well, perhaps not dread; the feeling is not oppressive — suffuses most of the songs. Stark, haunting, spare, chilling — call it what you will, but it certainly evokes the loneliness of the album title.

Speaking of loneliness, vocal presentation is an equally effective tool in conveying the feeling. Whereas before it's been frenzied and harsh, on Get Lonely, Darnielle's voice spends a good deal of time lingering in a high, frail register, soft as a whisper, each phrase an exhalation. "I will get lonely and gasp for air," he sings in the title track, his shattered delivery matching the lyric content expertly.

By now, you've no doubt read the New Yorker article where John Darnielle was named "America's best non-hip-hop lyricist." If you haven't, you should check it out.

I once wrote him a letter concerning his lyric style. I thought I'd caught a glimpse of something and compared him to Soviet author Isaac Babel. He wrote me back in 16 hours. He said that, no, he hadn't read Babel and didn't really ascribe much to "influence" anyway. "Not to say that one doesn't pick up habits from the stuff one reads, but 'influence' — wholly thorny weird question."

I brought up Babel because both he and Darnielle share an amazing terseness, a rare economy of language. Babel felt a work was only complete when all the extraneous language that could be removed was removed. Get Lonely only strengthens the similar impression I get from Darnielle's writing. Every line is razor sharp and yet brilliantly descriptive. Get Lonely finds his lyric craft even more honed.

Such is his focus that several motifs appear. References to the cold, freezing, and frost are offset by the introspection of weeds and grass. (Can weeds and grass really be introspective? Yes. Close your eyes and imagine reclining back on a grassy hillock, bare arms caressed by sawgrass, each blade collecting evening dew. Feel it pricking your neck, your elbows growing itchy as you gaze up at the Milky Way — that's the introspection at work here.)

Mirrors are also a popular theme. Their prominence in many of the songs suggests a narrational self-awareness. The persona knows the spotlight is focused inward and has thus brought his observational power to bear upon himself, completely willingly.

This self-analysis necessarily creates an album claustrophobic with memory and uncertainty. "…And whole boxes of memories/ Wrapped up at the curb/ I sang songs to myself/ Didn't have any words." Here, contradiction introduces tension (since "singing songs" implies vocalization and "didn't have any words" implies the opposite). All this to take the narrator's mind off the "boxes of memories wrapped up at the curb" — in this case, uncertainty springs forth directly from the relinquishing of memory.

And maybe, that's what Get Lonely is all about — the consequences of relinquished memory. It comes to a head with "In Corolla" — perhaps the finest suicide song I've ever heard. The narrator finally succumbs to the mounting loneliness assailing him in the world. In an O. Henry-like twist, you only find out what's happening in the very last verse, at which point you're liable to shudder and say "My God… he's drowning himself." A climax with no fanfare, simply a few extra strums on a guitar as the man is pulled under.

Just so, Get Lonely is a beautiful exercise in restraint. It speaks to me of the prairie and falling leaves. Of human desolation. Of the seasons and the ever-changing vanguard. Turn your stereo up to a modest volume, sit back, and be prepared for autumn, because this is the sonic equivalent. Willa Cather would be proud.


by Sam Ernst




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