on 24 January 2013
"We came into town under cover of night, because we were pretty sure the people here were going to hate us once they really got to know us. It was summer. It's always summer with us. In our lives together, which are sweet in the way of rotting things, it is somehow permanently summer."
It was several years ago that I first introduced myself to the music of John Darnielle, songwriter from North Carolina in the United States, and since then it has receded into many of my memories, redefining my past in ways that I can no longer describe. There are several reviews of his work that I have written on The Sunset Tree and The Life of the World to Come which, looking back, were honest at the time. These later releases are different to the previous releases of the Mountain Goats, which was Darnielle's moniker for both solo and accompanied performances; they are articulations of himself and his memories and doubtless drew many towards his music.
The Sunset Tree was an album dedicated to survival and persistence, and the efficacy of the self amidst whatever violence of upbringing, and The Life of the World to Come was a dedication to people struggling between life and death between the pages of the Bible, though articulated through a sense of real suffering and no doubt conveying Darnielle's sympathies for the many suicides, terminally ill and bedridden, but bringing the listener to this familiar sentiment of wide open spaces, of clearness and the importance of being inside the moment and knowing there and then that like all things it will either pass or be overcome, by something. The amount of times that I have read someone comment that Darnielle is always heading towards darkness and dread, drawing shadows where it seems like there are none but not seeing what he is doing there is difficult to pin down, but people who have been there know that down at that depth there are beautiful things that would otherwise never be seen, deep understandings and empathy that can only be seen in the twilight of consciousness.
Tallahassee is a desolate album mirroring the darkest places that people will go to find this meaning in their lives, like liquor poured down the throat of the "alpha couple", a stark image of love found in Darnielle's songwriting. The opening song describes the "moon stuttering in the sky like film stuck in a projector, and you" and the listener is drawn into the thoughts of a narrator who has found himself in a barren home where his only remaining hope is "you", and there is nowhere else, only the prayers of destruction, of being taking away from this empty place. Darnielle's portrait of an American life in decline because of inane game shows on television, alcohol, cheap white gold jewellery and the mistake of falling in love with a co-dependent alcoholic rather than someone who might take the alpha male some where beyond the dust-ridden house he has come to reminds me of the narrative of the film Candy (2006) which is a journey from heaven to hell through the eyes of a co-dependent couple, though it is Darnielle's bleak outlook for the couple in unadorned songwriting that really gives the album its effect on the listener.
Though the couple are obviously headed towards oblivion in the opening lines, the moon refusing to move as if foreboding the oncoming collapse of their relationship, Darnielle manages to create a sense of empathy between the alpha male and the listener, which makes his music so significant for a generation that sees alcoholism and addiction from a deeply uninformed point of view, as if the story was in the bottle rather than in the time before the bottle was taken from the shelf and slipped into quivering and fearful hands. First Few Desperate Hours shows that the narrator means only to be alone, but the world is drawing in around them, the "sun peaks in like a killer through the curtain". The moon will not move from the sky and the sun takes the form of a harmful killer; the house that contains this doomed couple is met with the first signs of spring and light rain, the flecks of sun at the window, but they are met with an old doubt and it becomes a serious omen. Castigations of friends and old disappointments follow and through the sound of alcoholism and regret, the anger of friends who have destroyed one another, television buzzes but the sound of the landscape carries through this fractured narrative.
The point of reviewing an album is always unclear; the very essence of music is that it cannot be quite contained within writing, and writing itself does not have that fleet sense about it. In literature and in words it is possible to slow down time itself and live within a moment, but music is as if there is a vanishing point and the listener is always disappearing into it, without option or choice. Tallahassee is endlessly reaching out towards the dawn of its reckoning but always slides, without any means of crawling back out, into abyssal depths. No Children is a song crafted out of abortive purpose, a self-destructive piece of lyrical rage directed at all relationships that have eventually bred resentment and after appearing on this album became a vessel for all listeners to escape their corrupted and regrettable life decisions. It dances in the midst of the steadily collapsing narrative arch of Tallahassee like a derisive yet ecstatic moment of clearness as the alcoholism fades and the reality peers in through narrow folds and blurred edges.
But even yet the alpha male stumbles forward into See America Right and the moment is gone, perking during Peacocks and Old College Try but for the most part the ecstatic feeling has vanished and the vapour trails of a love that ones meant something disappear under apocalyptic metaphor and pitiless reality seeping in. Lyrically Tallahassee is supposed to be the voice of a couple whose anger and frustration really has no words, and so visual symbols of peacocks in front yards and depictions where "the eyes I've always loved illuminate this place, like a trashcan fire in a prison cell, like the searchlights in the parking lots of hell" in Old College Try let the listener remember that Darnielle is not trying here to describe a couple who could ever communicate what they are feeling, but is rather trying to communicate this as an outsider looking in, offering the best glimpse into the sort of nightmare that they have become a part of. It seems like it was his purpose to give a voice to the voiceless, and to break the surface of that alpha couple, that co-dependent alcoholism that finally shattered the relationship and the stability of two lives, so that it would have more reality that that which people would usually accept.