I had a conversation with a former professor of mine once—she taught anthropology, if that lends any credit to what I’m about to tell you—about a suburb of Savannah, Georgia called Pooler. She said that if you took someone from any part of America and dropped them off in the middle of Pooler, Georgia, they would have no idea what state they were in. The apartment complexes, outdoor shopping malls, industrial parks and an air of pedestrian unfriendliness give Pooler anonymity. They make it exactly like any other suburb of the same size. They also mark it (and every other place like it) as patently American.
She was not praising Pooler when she said this, but I think that feeling has its merits. Imagine, for example, you were the one dropped into the middle of Pooler, Georgia. At the very least, you know you’re in suburban America. There’s no mistaking that. The constant but slow stream of cars on any of the hundreds of complexly-numbered highways reassures you that you’re not alone, not in an episode of the Twilight Zone. You might not know where you are, but you know you’ve been somewhere kind of like it before, and that place wasn’t so bad.
I’ve never been on the 15-501 before, but I’ve been on 635, 49, 183 and 475. In the first three lines of Wild Sage, John Darnielle drops a highway number that will prompt any American listener to think of another highway number, one like “15-501” but more familiar. This conceit, the use of geography to remove any concrete sense of place from the album, is exactly what makes it resonate. You are dropped blindly into a new town at the very beginning of the album and forced to look around and ask yourself, “what can I find here that will help me understand where I am?” The answer comes first in Business 15-501, in the cars that pass by, and in the wild sage growing in the weeds.
For the next forty minutes, Get Lonely’s geography evolves around this idea. It’s not the central theme—loneliness is, obviously—but it is important. Roads, in the first three tracks of Get Lonely, become symbols for the narrator’s isolation. They offer another way to feel out of place: who walks along the side of a highway except someone who is out of place? They are offered as contrast to glimpses of natural beauty: New Monster Avenue describes (in title and lyrics) a residential street, one that is unwelcoming in spite of “broad lawns and canopies of trees.” In Half Dead, they are a “message in code” first, then an altar at which the narrator gives up memories. Some of these roads have names, some of them do not. All of them are understood by the listener to be just like the roads in their own life; afterthoughts to those living happily, of paramount importance when the places at the ends of the roads have gone cold.
Throughout Get Lonely’s twelve tracks, the essential small American city becomes the stage for an immense personal tragedy. The narrator is overcome in the shadow of a building downtown, on the city bus, on street corners, by the absence of a loved one. In Moon Over Goldsboro (which, along with Business 15-501, outs the album as taking place in North Carolina), loneliness gives new meaning to a football game and a gas station and sirens on the highway. It is also in this song that an important contrast on the album is made clear: the worlds outside and inside the home. Outside of their house, the narrator is generally in control, as in Wild Sage and Half Dead. When the narrator crosses the doorstep, the result is much darker. Maybe Sprout Wings is a testament to this.
The album culminates, finally, with firm geography: Corolla. Corolla is a barrier island off the coast of North Carolina, where the narrator goes to “turn [their] back” on the world. The narrator has left the universally familiar city where the rest of the album occurs and ends up somewhere much more distinct. Pelicans fly past, humid air smells like salt water, and the sun sets into the Atlantic. Here, the narrator ends their life with an absolute clarity that can’t be found anywhere else on the album; this removes the element of familiarity from listening, distances the listener. In Corolla, where the geography of the album becomes more concrete, the emotion of the album too moves from universal to specific, and the drama of Get Lonely turns to tragedy.
Carter Boyd is the creator and curator of Slow West Vultures and is also a photographer and writer.