[5 December 2002]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
At the beginning of this year, the Mountain Goats released All Hail West Texas, an album recorded at home on a nearly-broken down machine and covered with fuzz. Now, near the end of the year, there’s Tallahassee, only a few states over but in a different world in terms of sound quality. This album is as crisp and clear as can be, recorded in a “real” studio with producer Tony Doogan, who has previously worked with Belle and Sebastian, the Delgados, Mogwai, and Teenage Fanclub.
What the two albums have in common is the songs of John Darnielle, the singer/songwriter who essentially is the Mountain Goats. He takes the stories of lonely, heartbroken people, with secrets, regrets and a desire to escape everything and go as far away as possible, and writes them into vividly realized, cinematic folk-pop songs. As likely to put blunt, bitter words in his characters’ mouths as he is to make obscure literary, historical and geographical references, Darnielle makes his songs hit you in the heart, gut and the head. A Mountain Goats song generally has an air of a puzzle about it but also feels like someone’s life torn open for us to look at it.
Though Tallahassee is more polished, more “professional”-sounding, the emotions, stories, lives and settings are not sanitized, and the power is not diminished. In fact, where Darnielle’s more primitive-sounding recordings use that sonically dirty side to help accentuate the emotions, Tallahassee and the other recordings he’s made in a more proper studio use crispness and clarity to similarly drive the feelings home. The songs on Tallahassee are as immediate and affecting as those on every Mountain Goats release.
While the Mountain Goats discography taken as a whole puts forth an immense spectrum of lonely souls, the songs on Tallahassee offers a close-up on just two of them. The album’s 14 songs are all about one particular couple, referred to by some as the “alpha couple” due to their recurring role in past Mountain Goats songs that all had the word “alpha” in the title. The “alpha couple” is a man and a woman who share a not especially happy life together in Florida. They are in love, perhaps, but it’s a love filled with bitterness, anger, sadness and alcohol. It’s a relationship that continues as much out of spite as anything else. Or as Darnielle sings in character during a dark, bluesy rocker called “See America Right”, “If we never make it back to California I want you to know I love you / But my love is like a dark cloud full of rain that’s always right there up above you”.
Or in another song: “My love is like a powder keg / In the corner of an empty warehouse / Somewhere just outside the town / About to burn down”. A love based on hatred: is that an oxymoron? Perhaps, but it’s exactly what Tallahassee dives headlong into.
With musical help from Nothing Painted Blue/Diskothi-Q member Peter Hughes, who plays a variety of instruments here, Darnielle has crafted songs that are alternately gentle and caustic, but always melodic and often quite beautiful. Pianos and guitars meet at times with rambunctious energy and at times for peaceful respites. Meanwhile the lyrics offer a detailed portrait of a place and people that are run-down and not sure what to do about it. Darnielle’s tone is somewhat comic but mostly sincere; listeners will feel like third-party observers but also like they’re experiencing the couple’s lives in full, as complicated and contradictory as they sometimes are.
As the songs pull in for a look at the lives of two people, they also push outward for a portrait of the world as a muddled, sometimes surreal, always messy place where people are just looking for something to hold onto. By the album’s final track, “Alpha Rats Nest”, the pair at its core seem to be looking forward to the end more than anything, dreaming of their house catching afire. “Sing sing sing, for the dying of the day”, Darnielle sings almost jovially, “sing for the flames that will rip through here and the smoke that will carry us away”. Within the world of Tallahassee, it’s a moment of hope, as warped as that might seem. The wish for redemption through a bath of fire is a bizarre but fitting way to end an album that offers a lucid look at the strange dynamics behind all human relationships.
Take a look at this couple and you might see yourself, though you won’t want to admit it.