Most artists that survive until their tenth album could be allowed some self-indulgence. Hoary old country singer? Hire a heavy metal producer and reinvent yourself. College-radio friendly rock band minus a drummer? Commit commercial suicide with a Kraftwerk influenced slab of impenetrable electronica.
So it’s almost refreshing to see a band trudging down the same road they’ve worn for the past 15 years. John Darnielle’s The Mountain Goats are, like their namesake a tenacious, rugged and seemingly indestructible beast, lonely, hurt and capable of weathering almost any storm.
Since the early 1990’s, The Goats have ploughed a deep alt-country furrow, one which contemporaries like Wilco and Lambchop have successfully pulled themselves out of and into the mainstream. Unfortunately, despite releasing a succession of critically acclaimed albums, Darnielle has failed to capture the hearts of the record buying public.
Get Lonely, his umpteenth album (we tried to find an exact figure, but output at college was so immense that we found ourselves lost in a mire of bootlegs, re-releases and promos) will do little to convince an ignorant public. Despite being his most accomplished sonically to date, this should be filed under ‘misunderstood classic’ rather than ‘ubiquitous chart-hogger,’ still too understated, too tender for mainstream consumption.
In the finest traditions of Darnielle’s output, this is a record of love, loss and the boredom of everyday life, all wrapped up in thin layers of melancholic guitar and intermittent piano.
Title track Get Lonely is as self-flagellating as most Mountain Goats songs come, the pain of a relationship breakdown etched on the obsession with the mundane, lyrics like “I will go downtown – button up my coat, trying to stay strong.” It’s lip-quivering stuff, but by the end of the album you’re resisting the temptation to grab the man by the scruff of the neck and scream, “Pull yourself together man!”
Darnielle will often still pull out lyrics that Dylan would grudgingly approve of, like piano driven opener Wild Sage’s “I thought I heard angles in my ears, like marbles thrown against a mirror.” This track, of all, exemplifies both the best and the worst of the band – a gorgeous, heartbreaking melody, but one that, unless attuned to the band could seem lightweight and a more than a little wimpish. Similarly, In the Hidden Places is an almost overwhelmingly beautiful composition, Darnielle’s traditionally sparse production suddenly coming to life with haunting violins bursting through the silence, but when it comes to the meaty chorus – nothing.
Only Half Dead recalls the sing-a-long choruses of his best albums, Tallahassee and The Coronor’s Gambit, a song that Kurt Wagner would lop off an a check-shirted arm for. While Get Lonely is still an opus worthy of most alt-country acts – Ryan Adams could certainly do with an album of this unassuming quality – there is always the feeling that if he’d just save a few years’ worth of material before releasing an album, there’s a classic waiting in the wings.
It’s difficult to find negatives for an album of this kind of confessional beauty, it’s almost like ribbing an old friend who’s just been dumped by his girlfriend. However, The Mountain Goats have progressed little from their formative years – still a cut above the emotional rest, they’ll fail to gain new fans unless a notable push is made to make these intricate tales of love and loss more accessible. However, he’s been going for ten albums or so already, so what the hell do we know?