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
it is as if whatever happens to the character happens to the audience throughout
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
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
(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
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
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.