Tallahassee – The Mountain Goats
John Darnielle is a freakin' genius.
I wish I had the balls to leave it at that and force you to seek this out on
your own, but, as is so often the case with things I love fiercely, I can't
shut the hell up
about this album. The Mountain Goats are essentially
Darnielle, and on last year's stark All Hail West Texas (an album
recorded entirely on a dying boombox), that was literally the case.
Tallahassee, which unceremoniously abandons Darnielle's intimately
lo-fi roots, is the Mountain Goats' most produced album to date, and these
songs flourish in the studio, fleshed out with buoyant bass lines, piano
refrains, and good old-fashioned crunch in all the right places.
Of course, the music is often secondary, which seems an odd thing to say of
an album, but
Darnielle's genius lies foremost in his story-telling. He is a writer who
speaks of his narrators in the third-person without pretension. These
Tallahassee is a concept album spun around the fortunes of a
desperate married couple (the Alpha Couple, inhabitants of an extensive
cycle of Darnielle songs) who move from sunny California to sunny Florida in
a last gasp effort to save a bitter love that is drowning in alcohol, "the
lovely little thing on which our survival depends."
More often than not though, the presumably male narrator finds himself
struggling to cling not to love but rather to a vain dream that there might
be hope for that love, to the shadow of love. He vacillates, hoping at once
that, "maybe everything that falls down eventually rises" but later
conceding that, "our friends say it's darkest before the sun rises, We're
pretty sure they're all wrong." Nonetheless, these two are in it for the
long haul. They stick not so much because they believe the spark will
return but because they are both too proud to be the first to quit, all the
while conceding that, "Something here will eventually have to explode."
Their fight is in many ways a fight to keep hope alive despite all the
forces conspiring against them – their own destructive natures, the beloved
vodka, cloven hoof prints
in the garden, or the house itself. It is a house in which, "the cellar
door is an open throat,"
gaping to swallow them whole, a, "house like a Louisiana graveyard where
buried." Part of Darnielle's gift is his ability to render expansive,
literate ideas or lines
smoothly within the song. At times he rushes, smashing word together in a
breath to fit them in the measure, but there is a certain thrill to those
spots. In "Have to Explode", he claims, "My love is like a powder keg in the
corner of an empty warehouse/Somewhere just outside of town/About to burn
down." Half of the fun is waiting on the period.
The songs themselves are often painful. They hide their pain behind bitter
ironies, saying, "People say friends don't destroy one another/What do they
friends?" and challenging, "Name one thing about us two anyone could love."
"No Children", which glides along above a cheery piano lick, may just be the
harshest song ever recorded to tape. The emotions are raw, unfiltered,
damaging. "I hope I lie/And tell everyone you were a good wife." It gets
worse. It is a song about the moment when all hope is lost. Somewhere just
below the label on a bottle of bourbon is a spot where waning hope turns to
waxing disdain. The bitter end jumps into sharp focus. All of the past
transgressions have piled up, and nothing can clear them away. The ugly
demise is inevitable, and the only thing to hope is that it comes quickly
and brutally. It is a place where, "I hope you die. I hope we both die,"
feels like the only, inevitable aspiration.
Despite the moments of raw, emotional brutality, there are snapshots of
sweetness in the collection, though even these moments are laden with
melancholy. They lie together against the cold bathroom tiles, sweating
out the toxins and trying to stay cool in the
Florida summer. She rides the bus halfway to Tampa to collect him when the
radiator blows as he swerves home stinking drunk. His well-liquored
gratitude causes him to spit out loving lines with vitriol ("If we never
make it back to California, I want you to know I love ya.") Finally, as
they sit around drinking and watching "The Price is Right", the narrator
realizes that he's, "in the mood, the mood for you." He sweeps her off her
feet, her "drunken kisses lighter than air," as he carries her up the stairs
to their bedroom. In these pockets, glimmers arise within which it is
possible for the listener to understand how these doomed lovers first fell
together and for the characters to believe, however briefly, that there
might be hope at the end of this dead end road. It is then that, "I will
walk down to the end with you/If you will come all the way down with me,"
sounds like, "I love you."