A braver critic might write this in first-person, since it’s only fair: The Mountain Goats’ “Get Lonely” persists in the tradition of last year’s “The Sunset Tree”, with John Darnielle getting personal again, shifting narration from third to first person.
But say, anyway, that a couple is waiting for the subway in New York in May 2005. They’re discussing “The Sunset Tree,” when one of them says, “Shit is too candid,” and denounces the record as over-produced. The other, meanwhile, argues round-aboutly in defense of the chills that it gives her: that the music’s production is exactly what makes the shit’s candidness OK; that it wouldn’t have made sense if it’d been recorded on an 8-track and made purposely crummy-sounding and if it had been, it would’ve been little more than a teenager’s diary plot twists: too open, too honest, but also deeply, fundamentally silly.
Though it’s now maybe two weeks after aforementioned couple broke up, the girl still cares — a lot — about everything: about this boy, mostly about this record. She argues that The Mountain Goats’ polished new sound isn’t a fault or mistake, but heartbreaking compensation. She asks: Don’t you feel tender toward him? Can’t you see where he’s coming from? Darnielle is telling you so much. The sound is a crutch that both the artist and listener need, like how someone might need a stiff drink, or a sweater.
In the case of “Get Lonely”, the sound-as-crutch argument still applies. “Half Dead”’s happy strums aren’t so absurd a backdrop to shouts of “Lost without you!/ half-dead!” as they seem because they’re purposeful, deliberate. Then there’s “Woke Up New,” which has to rank somewhere among the best in the history of waking-up-to-find-yourself-alone-in-the-morning songs, with lines like “The first time I made coffee for just myself/ I made too much of it/ But I drank it all cause you hated when I let things go to waste,” and repeated, crescendo-ing “what do I dos” like Darnielle’s only lost his keys instead of a girlfriend. When he sings “I pull my sweater/ over my hands, over my hands” on “In the Hidden Places” it’s arguably the most perfect moment on “Get Lonely:” if that second “over my hands” doesn’t break you, the “I wish it was warmer” surely does.
But “Get Lonely” only masquerades as a break-up album. Though it succeeds, on a very basic level, as pure meditation-on-loneliness, it emerges more complicated than some failed-love bitch-and-moan, or even some authentically mopey cry-fest. “Get Lonely” is all coldness, all pretty things amid weeds, all reflective surfaces. On “Wild Sage,” Darnielle likens the sound of angels to “marbles being thrown against a mirror;” “New Monster Avenue” finds him looking down at his hands “like they were mirrors.” Elsewhere, pine trees are “frozen in the silvery moonlight” (“Half Dead”) and dewdrops are “prisms … in the underbrush.” On “Maybe Sprout Wings,” he sings, “Tried to think good thoughts/ trying to find my way clear/ Let the room fill with steam/ traced pictures on the mirror.” “Get Lonely” only seemingly involves a cast of two, and loneliness only appears a by-product of this woman’s absence. Truth is, it’s all reflection: “Get Lonely” is lonelier than what it purports to be lonely about, and ultimately all comes down to one man’s look in a mirror.
What’s most depressing isn’t that they’ve broken up, or that he misses her: what’s depressing is that whoever broke his heart could have been anybody. On “Moon Over Goldsboro,” Darnielle sings, “A guy with any kind of courage/ would maybe stop to think the matter through/ maybe hold you still and raise the question/ instead of blindly holding on to you,” taking “love is blind” to depressing new levels: here he’s admitting that loves lost are, in virtually all cases, replaceable.
What these songs don’t say outright is that recovery is as certain as the heartache that precedes it. While the nature of “The Sunset Tree” permitted it to rise above the subject matter of teenage diaries, “Get Lonely” only attempts to, finally throwing its hands up, because it can’t: this isn’t failure on Darnielle’s part, it’s just fact.
Basically, the girl in the subway station shouldn’t have been so upset. Eventually, she would get over that boy quicker than she expected herself to. It wasn’t that big of a deal, and she knows this now; she feels sort of stupid about the whole thing. It’s a relief, in some ways, but also too bad: when Darnielle asks “What are the years we gave each other gonna be worth?” the answer seems to be, increasingly, nothing. On “Maybe Sprout Wings” he finds himself “already forgetting.” If relationships are supposed to be so essential, so indispensable, why is it that — post-initial loneliness — they’re ultimately, inevitably forgettable?
Turns out that “Get Lonely” is an imperative. The album’s title track is a string of “I wills;” I will rise up early; I will leave the house; I will find a crowd. Darnielle winds up, finally, at “I will get lonely,” and sighs that last sentence like all this tortured aftermath is mandated. He must get lonely; he doesn’t have a choice. “Get Lonely” needs to exist, if only to reassure ourselves that we have feelings; that we aren’t soulless; that, at least for moments, people are capable of making other people really, really sad. It’s why Darnielle tackles the task of getting lonely. In the end, it’s why we’re best off listening.