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Mountain Goats climb to dizzying heights

CAMBRIDGE -- The Mountain Goats got off to a shaky start at the Middle East on Tuesday, when John Darnielle sang his first song, ``Wild Sage," in a whisper. ``Some days I think I'd feel better if I tried harder/ Most days I know it's not true," Darnielle murmured, stroking his guitar strings, and in the near silence the clink of a beer bottle being tossed into the garbage was deafening. A moment later the squeaky swinging door ripped a hole right through the song.

``Get Lonely," the Mountain Goats' new album, is a suite of meditations on the perils of solitude, and it seemed that we were about to witness the fallout in all-too-real time. But Darnielle is, famously, a survivor, and the opening number turned out to be the poetic start point in a set that celebrated -- with remarkable humor, elegant craft, and maniacally skewed enthusiasm -- hope for redemption in the absurd face of the human condition.

Domestic disarray is the Mountain Goats' specialty. Accompanied by his current fellow Goat Peter Hughes on bass and harmony vocals, Darnielle led the sold-out crowd in strange and riveting singalongs of ``Dance Music" and ``This Year," perky monuments to an abusive childhood from last year's stunning ``The Sunset Tree." Only in a subterranean urban rock club will you find boys and girls cooing along in unison with ``Love Love Love," a deceptively balmy manifesto that begins with King Saul falling on his sword and ends with Kurt Cobain blowing out his brains.

Darnielle is a literate and prolific tunesmith; of the 14 indie-pop albums (and countless songs released on compilations, cassette-only collections, and label samplers) he's made in the past decade, ``Get Lonely" is among the least engaging. But the new songs popped to life onstage, where Darnielle lost the careful composure that colors the recorded versions of ``In Hidden Places," ``Maybe Sprout Wings," and ``New Monster Avenue" in muted hues. These are small, poised songs about big, messy feelings, and the messy feelings won. Darnielle's guitar playing grew wilder and harder, and his signature bleat still more pinched and desperate, as the set wore on.

``Let's not kid each other, you're going to have a very bad relationship sometime in your life. You will need a song to sing. This is that song," Darnielle said before closing down the show with ``No Children," a jubilant death wish that made everyone feel better.

Joan Anderman can be reached at

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