Sunday, August 28, 2011

On Tallahassee

Because I’ve been listening to it very often lately and have more and more discovered its brilliance, because by now I also like those songs that in my opinion were a bit lame at first, because by now I also learned to acknowledge the subversion in the smoother songs, because the narrative arc is intriguing and makes the somewhat stale idea of a concept album attractive again, because the lyrics of this album stand for themselves as a cycle of poems about two lost souls, and simply because “Tallahassee” was the first album I bought by The Mountain Goats, here is my hymn to “Tallahassee”, one of the best records of the then duo – casually extended by other musicians (and now complemented by drummer John Wurster) – consisting of songwriter, singer and guitarist John Darnielle and bassist Peter Hughes.

I first encountered The Mountain Goats on some compilation with “No Children”, their Übersong of the album, a one part hysterical, one part cheerful song about the most devastating aspects of a relationship, wrapped up in a folk song that sounds like Dylan on caffeine, with witty, bitchy, extremely poetic lyrics, lo-fi enough to make my punk rock heart beat faster, but still recorded well enough to emphasize all the nuances of Darnielle's nasal voice, of the brilliant bass playing of Peter Hughes and of the beautiful piano (different from 1996’s “Sweden," where the noisy home recording every now and then makes it, to me, hard to enjoy the record in one piece. No apologies.) I was stunned by the music as well as by the lyrics, which told this sad story in such a lively, optimistic way I just had to laugh about its brazenness – a quality, I later discovered, that is typical of John Darnielle’s lyrics as well as his recitation: even the worst things are told with a spark of hope, much respect for the protagonists and with a strong and sometimes even fierce will of survival.

And the rest of the album is in no way inferior to its "hit." It includes fast, always slightly hysterical songs like “No Children”, as discussed above, and “First Few Desperate Hours”, “Southwood Plantation Road” or the final song “Alpha Rat’s Nest," which each take turns between very beautiful, calm, melancholic pieces like the heartbreaking “Game Shows Touch Our Lives”, “Idylls Of The King” or the “International Small Arms Traffic Blues,” the latter of which offers a politically informed, ironic metaphor for love gone bad. From time to time, though, all this beautiful, slightly melancholic evening sun mood sometimes becomes pitch black. “The House That Dripped Blood”, “See America Right” and “Oceanographer’s Choice” each open an abyss that appears to be even more frightening and cruel amidst all these – fake – idylls for the Everyman, who somehow is aware of this all the time, and who suddenly stands alone with all his guilt and fearfully and wearily asks: “What will I do when I don’t have you, when I finally get what I deserve?”

A legitimate question, for only a few songs earlier, the singer seems to wish bad things upon his partner: “I am drowning, there is no sign of land. You are coming down with me. Hand in unlovable hand. I hope you die. I hope we both die.” While this is a cruel, sadistic wish, even the lover’s oath is dreadful, full of alcohol abuse, fear and apocalyptic imagery: “My love is like a dark cloud full of rain that’s always right there up above you,” the singer threatens his partner while being afraid himself: "[W]e try to keep our spirits high, but they flag and they wane [...] through these first few desperate hours“.

Of course the guy who speaks is not John Darnielle himself. “Tallahassee” is the last album before his forthright autobiographical phase and therefore also marks a break in The Mountain Goats’ continuum. It is the Alpha Couple about which Darnielle sings, a probably married couple with massive alcohol problems who pop up time and again throughout the existence of The Mountain Goats, depicting all the bad sides of relationships under the influence of alcohol and drugs and a somehow bad, addictive love. While on the other records prior to this one, this unhappy couple have their songs hidden among other topics, “Tallahassee” is the first album that deals only with the two – and putting them to rest for good, for after “Tallahassee”, these doomed guys don't appear anymore.

The story told here – a couple moving into an old, empty house somewhere in rural America to fight the demons of alcohol and drug abuse without professional help, with only themselves to rely upon – could be the plot for a novel, a play or a movie similar to “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”, the great, intense, intimate play about a couple who deeply hate and love each other at the same time. Darnielle’s story has the same intensity, the same aspects of love and hate, the same moments of cruelty, peace, despair and passion: “People say friends don’t destroy one another. What do they know about friends?”

The fact that Darnielle chose to unravel this elaborate story in a record, whose course he tells in short, spotlighted, more or less abstract poems focusing on details rather than on the whole, rather than a novel, renders the album even more compelling, adding another, deeper dimension to these beautiful, warm, surprisingly positive songs. And maybe – but maybe not – there is salvation in the end for the Alpha Couple. This is comforting, because what happens to this couple can happen to all of us. The story Darnielle tells us, those poetic lines, those depressing situations, those details as well as the whole drama may be sung about two special people, but – the expression “Alpha Couple”, a name the two got somewhere along their way, already tells it – all of this of course is about all of us.

It is a monstrous idyll somewhere in sunny America about which Darnielle sings, a love that has long become a death trap, and there’s no way to ease one’s own guilt and responsibility for this. The whole thing is carried by an acoustic and a bass guitar (except for those pitch black songs in which driving drums and a painfully distorted electric guitar respectively a bitchy distorted bass are allowed to break free at last), and from time to time a piano, a little percussion, an organ and other small instruments join in. The melodies are simple, beautiful, catchy, the chord progressions are plain, and if those songs and those lyrics were not of such an intensity, performed with that much happy despair, with a tongue-in-cheek weariness, playful hatred and somehow funny madness, one could think they were too plain, perhaps even boring. As written, though, they remain breathtaking even after the 100th listen, in a good as well as in a bad – because of the shock – sense.

“Tallahassee” marks the crossroads between the early, lo-fi boombox recordings and the studio productions, still lo-fi, but yet produced, and it’s coherent that Darnielle puts the Alpha Couple to rest here and moves on. But still the album can easily be integrated in the body of work of The Mountain Goats, lyrically as well as musically. It follows metaphors and musical motifs that can be found time and again, but, nonetheless, this album feels more urgent then all their other records I own (except for its successor “We All Shall Be Healed” from 2004). It breaks your heart more than everything else seeing a good-humoured Darnielle (or better his persona, probably the male part of the Alphas) running down the road to ruin while exactly knowing what he is doing when he just takes his counterpart with him. Nowhere else so far in the Mountain Goats repertoire have fear, despair, hatred and guilt been wrapped up as sunny, heart-warming, poetic and at the same time down-to-earth as on “Tallahassee.” Nowhere else can one feel as comforted and at home in the face of all the forsakenness and loneliness one meets here.

Thus, on Tallahassee, from the abyss comes a smile in the form of wonderful and - despite all the hopelessness of the Alpha Couple - still hopeful love songs.

By Sascha Buehler. Mr. Buehler is currently working in marketing, as a freelance lecturer and author in Southern Germany. He is also the singer and guitarist of SingSallySing ( ) and Cyco Sanchez Supergroup (

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