Last year the Mountain Goats released The Sunset Tree, an aural exorcism inspired by the abusive childhood of the band’s frontman and only permanent member, John Darnielle. Like its predecessor, the speed-freak saga We Shall All Be Healed, The Sunset Tree was loosely autobiographical and boasted a professional-studio sheen, especially compared with earlier Mountain Goats efforts, several of which were recorded on a boombox. The Sunset Tree also marked the former mental-hospital nurse’s ascension from cult figure to quasi-mainstream almost-celebrity, or whatever it is that you call the subjects of adulatory features in the New Yorker. Recent converts who expect another cathartic confessional will be disappointed by Get Lonely, Darnielle’s latest offering, which is as subtle and subdued as The Sunset Tree was harrowing and intense. What it lacks in drama, though, it makes up for in quiet artistry.
Whereas The Sunset Tree portrayed someone in thrall to his demons, Get Lonely often resembles a recovery journal. Its narrator, still reeling from a painful breakup, is just trying to make it through the day. He drinks too much coffee, blends into crowds, tries to forget. If he seems numb, it’s a numbness born of agony, a not-entirely-successful attempt to ward off a breakdown. Against a spare backdrop of acoustic guitar and piano, tribal-jazz percussion, plangent cello, and brief flourishes of vibes and horns, Darnielle sings in a strained near-whisper, often at the margins of his range. Sometimes, as on the roiling, brass-inflected “If You See Light,” he sounds paranoid, imagining himself hiding under the dining-room table while angry villagers beat down his door; sometimes, as on the gentle suicide fantasy “In Corolla,” he seems resigned, improvising a lukewarm prayer as he sinks into brackish water.
Mostly, though, he sounds stoic and, well, lonely. The jarringly chipper “Half Dead” finds him cleaning house, both literally and figuratively: “Spent half the morning throwing old stuff away/Try not to get caught, try to think like a machine/Focus in on the task, try not to think about what it means.” Throughout the album, Darnielle seesaws between the prosaic and the poetic, his lines shifting from straightforward narrative to startling metaphor. On “In the Hidden Places,” a slow, string-soaked stunner with a rushing rhythmic undercurrent, he sings, “Saw you on the crosstown bus today/You were reading a magazine/I turned my face away, and I shut my eyes tight/Dreamed about the flowers that hide from the light on dark hillsides/In the hidden places.” Lost love is the oldest trope in the songwriter’s handbook, but Darnielle makes it sting again.
On her Matador debut, Jennifer O’Connor delivers simple, sturdy folk-pop songs in the tradition of early Liz Phair (minus the psychosexual swagger and, perhaps, the screwball inventiveness). Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars, the New York City-based singer/songwriter’s third full-length, deals with painful subjects — death (O’Connor has lost two sisters in recent years, one in a car accident and one to brain cancer), breakups (before, during, and after), and the allure of impossible love — while never succumbing to self-pity. The CD’s dozen tracks range from intimate acoustic-guitar ballads (“Today”) to Latin-flavored rave-ups (“Complicated Rhyme”) to buzzy power-pop anthems (“Turn It Down”), all of which nicely showcase O’Connor’s dry wit and thin but appealing alto. With understated support from drummer Jon Langmead, bassist James McNew (Yo La Tengo), keyboardist Kendall Meade (Sparklehorse, Mascott), and occasional backing vocalist Britt Daniel (Spoon), O’Connor’s humble, hopeful odes to human resilience gleam like pennies in a hospital fountain.