Since 1992, John Darnielle has been creating lo-fi plot-centered music as the Mountain Goats.
Darnielle's style has always been to tell stories through song. We're not talking anything like a musical here, nothing quite so coherent as Rent. He tells his stories as a booze-hound trying to recall what he did last night, through a series of clipped, vague, and often unclear flashbacks. Most often, Darnielle lays out his stories through a series of first person stream-of-thought narrations by one or more of the albums characters. This being said, the word `narration' does not fully convey what Darnielle accomplishes through this. The result he has achieved time and time again is an experience akin to watching a person's life through their own eyes during periodic installations of their existence. Frequent listeners may expose themselves to the risk of becoming attached to the characters, who are, perhaps without exception, tragic figures in some fashion. If you want an album with a happy ending, you might try sending John Darnielle some prozac, but for the moment you're out of luck.
Tallahassee, like its predecessors, is as much a story as it is music. Given this fairly unique brand of story telling, listeners who just throw the CD on for background music, or listen distractedly, may find the album very dissatisfactory. Few emotionally powerful stories can be appreciated by half-hearted attention, and Tallahassee is no different.
Focusing on the characters that make up the "Alpha Couple", an unhappy couple who have been the subject of many previous songs, the picture painted throughout this album is of a hopelessly broken marriage, and the couple struggling desperately to fix it. Don't worry, I won't leave you in suspense: they fail utterly in every aspect, save that they manage not to murder each other. But through their failure the listener is made to experience the full spectrum of crippling emotions both high and low that such a failing marriage entails. There are also several good doses of dark humor at its darkest to keep the mood nice and light for the listener.
By the climax of the album, Oceanographer's Choice, there is little doubt left that the aching love the characters feel for one another comes incredibly close to matching the depth of their hatred. Those who, like myself, are familiar with Edward Albee's play, `Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?' may see strong similarities between the Alpha Couple and George and Martha. Those who aren't may just find themselves kind of depressed.
Below, written in a format that behooves a writer, I have reviewed the album track by track, judging each with a thumbs up or thumbs down as I see fit. For those of you who are lazy and just want advice as to which songs they ought most to seek, this is my advice: listening to a track outside the context of the album is much like watching only a scene from a movie. It would be incomplete, and thus give the listener a very incomplete appreciation. This is not recommended. But, if you simply must taste of the album's wares before committing yourself, I would recommend Tallahassee or Game Shows Touch Our Lives. That being said, on with the track-by-track review!
Tallahassee: The album begins with the appropriately titled song Tallahassee. Using lyrics loaded with poetic description (one of Darnielle's specialties), the song that sets the albums opening scene feels almost cinematic. "Window facing an ill-kept front yard / Plums on the tree heavy with nectar / Prayers to summon the destroying angel / Moon stuttering in the sky like film stuck in a projector". Put to relaxing, if ever-so-slightly nervous guitars, the mood of this song can hardly be defied by an attentive listener. Weariness is not an emotion often expressed in any opening, but if I had to pick, that would be the emotion this song best conveys. Not the weariness of any thing in particular, but an overall weariness of life, the sort that comes only after being stressed so much for so long, until one has no more stress to muster. The sort of emotional surrender through which one can actually come out the other side and appreciate the beauty of everything. This song, as with the rest of the album, is told through the narrative of the Alpha Male. Thumbs up
First Few Desperate Hours: The slight nervousness of the first song segways into significantly more intense guitar strumming. "Bad luck comes in from Tampa." the song begins, and this becomes something of choral line. "Bad luck comes in from Tampa/ on the back of a truck / doing 90 down the interstate". As the song progresses, nervousness is clearly the mood of the day, as the characters uncomfortably await the cryptically vague "bad luck" to arrive. Unfortunately, if the listener is like me, they might find the music just slightly too monotonous, and the lyrics just a little too vague to convey the anxiety the characters are feeling. There are some beautiful lyrics, and with time this song has grown on me, but I don't think it's quite what it could have been. Thumbs Down.
Southwood Plantation Road: The song is almost deceptively upbeat in its music, and Darnielle's guitar perfectly accents his lyrics and the overall content of the song. On an almost cheerful tone, the listener is given a taste of how life in the house of the Alpha Couple is going. "I am not gonna lose you / we are going to stay married" Darnielle cheerfully but forcefully insists "On Southwood Plantation Road. Where the dead will walk again / put on their Sunday best / and mingle with unsuspecting Christian men". Both the overarching feel and concept of the album are captured quite well in this song. Love, optimism, pessimism, frustration, and dark humor are all expressed in the same breath by John Darnielle's peppy, upbeat voice. Thumbs Up
Game Shows Touch Our Lives: Set to music so soft and deep that I have always found it hard not to lose myself in it, Game Shows Touch Our Lives is without a doubt my favorite song on the album. It is beyond the limited ability of my ears to distinguish every instrument being played. Whatever the combination, it compliments Darnielle's vocals, which in and of itself could not have been done any better, with absolute perfection. "Shadows crawled across the living room's length / I held onto you with a desperate strength / with everything / everything in me". In my opinion, Darnielle's greatest strength as a performer is his ability to express the sincerity of his lyrics, and there is no better example than this song, in which the main character (the male of the Alpha Couple) expresses his deep desire for everything to simply be okay. "Carried you up the stairs that night / (All of this could be yours, if the price is right) /I heard cars headed down to Oblivion from up on the expressway". Thumbs Up
The House That Dripped Blood: Set to some heated guitar and some of the best use of the harmonica I've experienced, The House That Dripped Blood relates, through a narrator that sounds as if he is trying very hard not to panic, that there are some buried secrets in the house that the Alpha couple can never allow to be exposed. Again, this is done cryptically enough to annoy me somewhat as a listener, as the lyrics never directly mention what is hidden there. The music, however, is most enjoyable, as are the vocals if one can get beyond wondering what their exact meaning is. Thumbs Up
Idylls of the King: A slow pacing, pleasant strumming of guitar, and decent assortment of subtly and not-so-subtly inserted instruments all give this song potential that just never comes together quite right, at least for this listener. The song seems without much direction, both mood and melody-wise, and Darnielle's gentle but cheerful voice just never seems particularly engaged in the songs content. Thumbs Down
No Children: Lyrically, I'm not sure I believe a human being is capable of disliking this song. The guitar and keyboard seem designed mostly as a pretty-sounding drone to augment the lyrics, but they do that quite effectively. The lyrics are so bittersweet and contradictory as to make the song quite funny. "I hope our few remaining friends give up trying to save us / I hope we come up with a failsafe plot to piss off the dumb few that forgave us" for instance, and such lines as "I hope I lie and tell everyone that you were a good wife / And I hope you die / I hope we both die" sent some of the comically mixed messages the Alpha male sincerely feels. Honestly, the lyrics of the song are great in their entirety. There's not a single line that I don't love. The monotonous music makes the song wear on you after a few listens, but the lyrics make those first few times absolutely golden. Thumbs Up.
See America Right: This song is essentially John Darnielle's experiment in rap. To some drums and guitar he shouts his story of the Alpha male's bad day of car accidents and alcohol withdrawal. The contrast of this song with everything on the CD is more than a little disconcerting to the ear, and outside the context of this album I'm not sure I'd listen to it. However, within the context of the CD, I think it works rather well. The song essentially portrays the Alpha Male finally cracking, while allowing the listener some well needed venting. Thumbs Up
Peacocks: Peacocks is a soft melodious tune with some very pretty guitar work, and it conveys quite well the situation the lyrics paint, in which the Alpha male steps outside one day to find, without explanation, a peacock in his front yard. The utter confusion and befuddlement of the character comes quite well through the gentle, serene music. I'm not sure how well it fits with the rest of the album, but I'm quite fond of it. Thumbs Up
International Small Arms Traffic Blues: What I enjoy about this song can be easily exemplified with the line "Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania / Trucks loaded down with weapons crossing over every night". The lyrics, a series of metaphors for the couple's love that also hint at some very important plot advancement, make the song amusing at the least. Unfortunately, musically speaking, it's not thrilling. Vocally, Darnielle sings with a kind of whiny rasp that doesn't appeal to me. Still, the listener may well find this song good for a few listens. Thumbs Down.
Have to Explode: Set to some relaxing guitar and piano, Have to Explode conveys a gentle sense of tension building between the Alpha couple. I say this because the lyrics would seem to imply a building tension. Personally, however, I just find the song rather soothing. Whatever it was meant to convey, it is rather pretty in both vocals and tune, and whatever purpose I may read into its placement is really only an aside to what it is. And it is rather nice. Thumbs up
Old College Try: This song, gentle and relaxing like the last, manages to establish a decidedly pensive mood as our narrator attempts to make peace with his love while admitting how costly and unlikely a successful mending of their marriage would be. Again, the song carries a feel of exasperated surrender that I find attractive. It's an easy song to get lost in the mid-album shuffle, but a good one. Thumbs up
Oceanographer's Choice: Remember some tracks ago when I wrote that Game Shows Touch Our Lives was undoubtedly my favorite song on the album? I lied, there was more than a touch of doubt. This is only because I find Oceanographer's Choice to be both one of the most intense songs I've ever heard and an almost unfathomably perfect climax to the album. The song begins with the line "Guy in a skeleton costume comes up to the guy in the Superman suit / Runs through him with a broad sword". This practically sums up the song, an intense showdown between the subjects of this drama. Musically, lyrically, and vocally this song just flat out rocks. Thumbs up.
Alpha Rat's Nest: This song, which can only be described as a manically depressing, involves some extremely pop-like upbeat vocals and guitar as our narrator cheerfully describes the continuing cesspool that the Alpha Couple calls married life. "Ah, the lengthening hours in the refinery / Belching fire into the sky / We do our best vampire routines / As we suck the dying hours dry" is sung as if the singer has had one the best day of his life. The listener may easily fail to realize that this is the all the resolution they will be getting from this ongoing drama, and thus the albums ending may seem quite abrupt. But given that half the tracks on Tallahassee, including the introduction, feel very much like the last song of an album, I suppose the more expected soft, mournful tune would be a little redundant. Thumbs up