Sunday, August 28, 2011

On Get Lonely

Get Lonely is probably the most unfairly maligned record in The Mountain Goats’ canon. I’ve argued this album’s merits endlessly, and I’m not done. It is one of my very favorite tMG records.

It is emotionally terrifying, but very quiet. The album is also the first where John Danielle learned how to fully use the studio as an instrument. There has been a lot of discussion about him recording studio albums, and whether this has been a good thing. There is no reason to rehash those old tired arguments. Suffice it to say, though I came in (barely) before the first studio record, I’ve never been overly beholden to the boombox recordings.

I expected to hate this record. I saw the band three times shortly before the album was released. The last time, an in-store at Amoeba Records in Hollywood was the first time I was able to connect with these songs. It was at Amoeba, standing in line to get my CD signed, that I first heard the studio versions. JD told me it was his favorite thing that he had done. I wondered if I would have the same opinion. On the drive home, I bonded with the album, and it slowly formed a special place in my heart. It’s still the tMG album I put on most often.

I’ll be honest. The state of my life at the time probably had a lot to do with the bond I formed with Get Lonely. I was renting a bed in a town house in Anaheim, Ca. around that time. I was drinking a lot of wine. Stuff either purchased or shoplifted from a dollar store up the street. I would get drunk, and put the album on repeat. The album can still transport me to bad places, but it’s also a bit cathartic.

I realize that my rambling introduction has said little about the album itself. Let’s look at the thing track by track. The mood of Get Lonely is pretty static throughout. The first song, "Wild Sage," uses an acoustic guitar as a backing track with a piano plucked against it.

The song is the story of a man leaving his house at daylight, and going to walk alongside a road. The lines are brutal, and especially detailed. He loses his footing, breaks his fall with his hand. Then: "and I laugh to myself and look up at the skies, and then I think I hear angels in my ears like marbles being thrown against a mirror.” Shortly thereafter he tells us “and some days I don't miss my family. And some days I do. And some days I think I'd feel better if I tried harder. Most days I know it's not true.” The song is the sound of a single person completely losing his shit, but in a manner that is so quiet he doesn’t even notice. It ends with the narrator lying down by the side, staring at the scrape on his hand, and continuing to sing to himself. It can be a very harrowing four minutes.

“New Monster Avenue” begins with drum flourishes, before another acoustic guitar kicks in. It’s seemingly the sound of a man scared out of his mind, anticipating the end of the world: “sometime before the sun comes up, the earth is going to crack.” By the end of the song he seems OK with his impending destiny, as he sips coffee at sunrise, and notes that his number is finally coming up. The song ends in a moment out of Frankenstein: “all the neighbors come on out to their front porches, waving torches."

“Half Dead” is a lovely moment, containing a bad ass bass line. If you’re sick enough, it can be turned into a sing-a-long: “ can’t get you out of my head. Lost without you. Half dead.” It’s the kind of song that should get under a person’s skin, but you’ll find yourself singing lines like “what are the years we gave each other ever going to be worth” without a hint of remorse.

The title track finds the narrator still going out at odd hours, trying to find comfort anywhere he can. He tries to hide in a crowd, or paint, or call a friend. Still, there’s another person he can’t let go of: “I will get lonely and gasp for air, and send your name up from my lips like a signal flare.” That person is a constant ghost throughout the album. She is everywhere, even though she’s only actually seen once or twice.

“Maybe Sprout Wings” has the narrator locked in his house. He spends most of the song trying to shake off a bad dream, and it’s probably the most haunted song on the record: “I thought of old friends, the ones who'd gone missing. Said all their names three times.” He mentions ghosts and spirits repeatedly. You get the picture of a man, maybe agoraphobic, but probably just fucked by the shock of loss, trapped in his house.

“Moon Over Goldsboro” continues the theme of odd movement, and odd hours: “I went down to the gas station for no particular reason.” It’s also one of the few moments you see a person other than the narrator. He lies down in the weeds, is happy for a moment, goes home. He is happy for another moment as he recalls moving into the house, than goes to bed. He wonders if he should continue blindly holding on to this woman, but he does so anyways. Of course, the song could be pure hallucination as he mutters to himself: “spend each night in the company of ghosts. Always wake up alone.” It’s the best song on the record, but also the hardest to get a grip on.

“Autumn came around like a drifter to an on-ramp” begins "In The Hidden Places." The narrator begins to “walk barefoot around town.” The song is mostly him riding a bus, going around town. He get’s a glimpse of his ex on the bus, then goes home to freak out: "pulled my sleeves down over my hands, over my hands. and I wished I was someone else. And I wished it was warmer. And when I got home, I thought about you.” The brutal sadness continues unabated.

"Song for Lonely Giants" is a short song. It’s a brief tale of a man singing songs to himself: “practicing my solitary scales 'til they rose like balloons”. It’s not one of the heavier songs on the record, but it still leaves an impression.

Following that is “Woke Up New,” probably the only thing resembling a pop moment on the album. Still, it contains it’s share of brutal moments: “and I began to talk to myself almost immediately, not being used to being the only person there.” That is followed by "the first time I made coffee for just myself,I made too much of it, but I drank it all, just 'cause you hate it when I let things go to waste.”

The chorus is simple: “And I what do I do without you?” It’s simple, and sad, but also possesses a little hope, rarely seen on this record. The song ends with the line: “and I got ready for the future to arrive.” The narrator is still numb and hopeless, done in by his situation, but he’s at least trying to move forward.

"If You See Light" is kind of a continuation of “New Monster Avenue.” The narrator is still waiting for the villagers, hiding. He’s “waiting for the front door to splinter” but instantly condemns his neighbors; “no one knows how to keep secrets ‘round here, they tell everyone everything as soon as they know. “ It’s a brief moment of pure terror, and ends as such.

The worst thing here is “Cobra Tattoo”. It fits the mood a bit, but seems oddly out of place in a way I’ve never been able to place. It seems the narrator is directly talking to a person in front of him, which is odd. It doesn’t quite have the hallucinatory effect a lot of the best songs that Get Lonely offers. It’s also odd to have god mentioned on this album.

“In Corolla” is basically a fuck off to the world: “the day I turned my back on you people I felt an itching in my thumbs.” It’s a goodbye, and also the second bit of hope on the record. Even though he leaves a trail of destruction behind him, every where he goes, he’s going to be OK. It’s probably the only way to end a record like this: “the sun was sinking on the Atlantic the last time I turned my back on you.” You get the sense that the narrator is drowning himself but it could also be a bit of a baptismal. So it goes.

Get Lonely is difficult record. It’s extremely heavy on pain and sorrow, and at least half of it it pure hallucination. If you get too close, it can hurt you. Despite my personal adventures, and the emotions it brings up, it could be my favorite tMG record. I think people have a hard time surrendering themselves to a musical recording and letting it wreck havoc on their emotions, but that’s what Get Lonely does best. If you can survive it, it will teach you something about yourself, and you’ll be a better human being for it.

By Jeffrey Whitelaw. Mr. Whitelaw lives, works, and attends school in Seattle, Wa. His previous music writing can be found at and He is currently thinking of six ways to prove to you that you're wrong, but can be contacted at

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