Looking back on it, I should have given last year’s The Sunset Tree at least another half-star. When it came out I was thrown a bit by its overall quiet nature, for with the exception of a few numbers it seemed to lack the more raucous and humorous side Darnielle has shown in the past. It made perfect sense though with the serious and personal subject matter: for the first time we heard tales of Darnielle’s own youth and the characters that surrounded him, his abusive step-father being the main subject. By the end of the year I realized how the power of it all outweighed the changes in the sound and was in love with the album, and it ended up in the #2 spot on my list. Good thing I came around to that album, because Get Lonely takes the Goats’ sound even further in that quiet and gentle direction, with the hushed songs clearly taking over. Darnielle’s lyrics take a step back from the straightforward truths to simply emotions described through more abstract wording, like he’s coming down from the exhausting trip that The Sunset Tree must have been.
As far as musical backup goes, most of the old gang is here: Peter Hughes again lays down the bass and additional odds n’ ends; Franklin Bruno plays a bigger role than ever on keys, guitars and arrangements, even helping to co-write the music of the closing track; and then there’s John Darnielle, who supplies some keys as well as electric and the usual acoustic guitar. New to the clique are Jen and Gene Baker on trombone and trumpet respectively, in one of my favorites “If You See the Light,” a romp with full drum set and untraditional percussion crashing in the background, all held together by both piano and organ; it’s the first Goats’ song (I believe) to have horns. But aside from that song, the album is quite low-key. It explores a wide range of tones and feeling, but never does Darnielle rely on his signature high-pitched wail, or ‘bleat’ as I’ve heard it described -- those parts of his songs that everyone knew because you can’t help but pay attention. Not even once does this favorite tone of voice appear, and there are no anthemic blasts like “This Year.” In fact, he is close to a whisper a lot of the time (see “Dinu Lipatti’s Bones” off Sunset) like in “Wild Sage,” which is a bit of an odd choice for an opener.
With my initial disappointment faded, I can say thank God the Goats doesn’t fall back on the same devices every album. With Darnielle’s abilities to tell captivating stories and sing instantly familiar melodies, he could have cranked out furiously strummed lo-fi solo material of a fictional nature for another decade and his rabid fans (myself included) probably would have devoured them anyways. Thankfully though, here we are in the fourth consecutive album recorded completely hi-fi with two of those four delving into factual, more personal stories and all of them experimenting with instrumentation and dynamics. And despite the low-key nature, great songs are to be found on Get Lonely with a little patience. “Half Dead” has become one of my new favorites out of his hundreds penned, with an easily-sung chorus -- "Can’t get you / Outta my head / Lost without you / Half dead" -- and a great bridge with sustained single notes of electric guitar mixed with vibraphone chords hanging in contrast over the staccato hits of the acoustic guitar and brushed drumset. I can’t get this song out of my head (sorry for the bad joke, but it’s seriously been in my head for days straight).
“Woke Up New” is one I can’t imagine without the whispered tone of the vocals in the chorus, climbing skyward with each "What do I do? / What do I do? / What do I do?." “New Monster Avenue” begins with a rolling drum solo -- you heard right, but it’s a light roll -- that provides a far-off thundering effect lingering under Darnielle’s soft lines and eventually builds into a short storm of cymbals.
Get Lonely is an album that takes time and patience to love. Unfortunately I only procured this about a week ago and am just starting to realize this after being first a bit let down. In what seems to be a trend I must explain my score: If I bump The Sunset Tree up to a nine, then I think Get Lonely would sit a bit lower at an eight. Still a solid outing by Darnielle and his crew that I would recommend to any fan willing to let them take some risks by not relying on time-tested hooks. To new interested parties I would still probably recommend All Hail West Texas, Tallahassee or something even older simply because they are more instantly accessible. Then return to Get Lonely as I surely will as the year wears on, probably to discover it’s in my top ten of the year.