Early Mountain Goats records were little more than a voice, a ragged acoustic guitar, and a boombox. Off-putting in their directness but occasionally sublime, the Mountain Goats’s grittiness added to their cult appeal, but they were also a clear candidate for studio polishing. Signed to the legendary 4AD and teamed with John Vanderslice, the Goats’ frontman (and often only-man) John Darnielle dropped the lo-fi and delivered three haunting, modest concept albums: the doomed love story Tallahassee, the junkie saga We Shall All Be Healed, and the memoir Sunset Tree.
The Sunset Tree wasn’t the best Mountain Goats record—that would be Tallahassee—but it was the one that got written up in The New Yorker, where Darnielle was praised as being “America’s best non-hip-hop lyricist.” But even following such accolades, expectations of any Mountain Goats release are rarely high or low; with an oeuvre of well over 400 songs, Darnielle’s newest release, Get Lonely, is just another drop in the bucket. He is one of independent rock music’s finest lyricists—strangely, the New Yorker profile also covered the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn, one of the worst—but Get Lonely is the product of a tunesmith on autopilot.
While Get Lonely takes the mood (read: professionalism) of Sunset Tree as a starting point, it’s a much less compelling record. Note the title’s jokey take on Elvis Costello’s Get Happy!!!; is Darnielle distancing himself from the sincerity of the autobiographical Sunset Tree? Sort of, but not really. Darnielle maintains his mastery of the mundane—can anyone else compare a choir of angels to “marbles being thrown against a mirror” quite so convincingly?—but the poetics are lost on some truly forgettable melodies. Take “New Monster Avenue,” which aches for the jazz-infused minimalism of Talk Talk’s Laughing Stock, but instead feels like someone whispering a really uninteresting secret in your ear.
Get Lonely is by no means the disaster that Lou Reed’s spin on Poe, The Raven, was, but it’s similar in that both records’ lackluster songs do disservice to the overt literary quality of the lyrics. Like all Mountain Goats albums, of course, there are some gems. “Half Dead” is the catchy jingle with a wicked core that Darnielle should stick to—like Tallahassee‘s masterful “No Children,” which a buddy of mine once burned 20 times in a row onto a CD-R for an ex-girlfriend. Sure, even Craig Finn could have come up with a refrain like, “Can’t get you/Outta my head/Lost without you/Half dead,” but that’s why I sing the Beach Boys in the shower and not Tennyson.