John Darnielle has a reputation for relentlessly grim songs about broken, compromised, cast-off people, alternated with occasional moments of hope for those people. This album continues that pattern. It starts with its most aggressively positive song; I think this song is too upbeat, too strenuously uplifting, but it gets completely recast in an angrier version with sharper lyrics toward the end of the album. The big anthemic line is “just stay alive,” which may not sound like an especially inspiring message unless you’ve had to try hard to do it.
In terms of sound, the big news is that there’s a horn section in several of these songs. Sometimes that gives them a Smiths-like combination of despairing lyrics and big bright music. Other songs get a kind of two a.m. lounge vibe from the horns. There’s also a shrill, eerie synth sound in “Night Light” which reminds me somewhat of the ferocious, intravenous harmonica from “The House That Dripped Blood.” I noticed the drums a lot more here than usual, too: the soft marching drums in “White Cedar” which counter the sad lounge horns, or “Until I Am Whole,” where even the drummer seems to be on downers. (That song also has some of Darnielle’s more horror-movie imagery.)
Darnielle has written a lot of songs about being stuck, about waiting, the not-yet. This album is especially insistent: Almost all the songs are about people who are waiting to get better, waiting for the moment when they’re vindicated (“when my point men finally come,” as one paranoid narrator says) or the moment when they begin to imagine change. Just when that day is coming, who can say?
It’s not a perfect album. Some of the lyrics are almost self-parodic: “some things you do/just to see/how bad they’ll make you feel.” Sometimes Darnielle’s vocals get too breathy or emo for me. I love all Mountain Goats songs about houses full of stumbling disasters, I loved “Lakeside View Apartments Suite,” and I love the lines “and just before I leave/I throw up in the sink/one whole life recorded/in disappearing ink”; but I do not love the light shuddery little voice he sings them with, the aural equivalent of too much shakycam.
But when it works it’s amazing: the darkness of the line, “The loneliest people in the whole wide world are the ones you’re never going to see again,” or the unyielding, irrational, flamboyant and heroic perseverance of “Spent Gladiator.” A long time ago on a particularly catastrophic morning a friend and I came up with the superhero Wake-Up Man. “His special power: to face another day!” His theme song is on this album.