Whenever the Mountain Goats play live, which they do often and to great acclaim from their famously dedicated fanbase, everybody wants to hear “No Children.” It’s the most unlikely anthem that any audience ever sang along to: the chorus goes, “I hope you die, I hope we both die.” Head Mountain Goat (and for most of the group’s history, the entire band) John Darnielle introduces it like this: “Someday, when your marriage falls apart and everything is going to hell, you’ll need a song to sing because there won’t be anything else to do. Here’s that song.” That’s a sentiment that you can extend to the entire album that gave us “No Children,” 2002’s Tallahasse.
Before The Sunset Tree shot to the top of every music critic’s 2005 year-end list, The Mountain Goats was a one-man show, at the forefront of lo-fi recording. Darnielle started the band in his bathroom with a cheap boombox that could record onto cassettes. Art Brut frontman Eddie Argos, whose music could hardly be more different than Darnielle’s, would write a song about his debt to this style of recording (“Slap Dash for No Cash”), and during live shows would frequently mention Darnielle by name when introducing it. Then came Tallahasse. Pop it in now, and it sounds bare-bones, but the idea of having a Mountain Goats album recorded in an actual studio and with an actual band was something fans laid down borders and barricades over.
If the loudness of a noise is proportional to the silence proceeding it, the lone harmonica on “The House That Dripped Blood,” may as well have been a thunderstorm, and the full-band accompaniment on “Oceanographer’s Choice” the sound of the apocalypse itself. Tallahassee was also the first album dedicated to exploring Darnielle’s now-famous “canon” of recurring characters and themes.
“The Alpha Couple” are one such piece of canon. Over the first decade of the band’s existence, Darnielle would return to two lovers whose passion for each other had curdled into a codependent, destructive desire. Their name comes from the fact that songs about them would contain the word “Alpha” in the title. The entirety of Tallahasse is devoted to the end-stage of this race down the drain. The couple arrives in Tallahassee, Fla., buys a dilapidated farmhouse and commences drinking while the house collapses around them. Darnielle’s quirky knack for descriptions is on the best possible stage here. Throughout, he stages the smallest and most insignificant items and details as the fulcrum that entire songs turn on, and as the decaying house becomes a symbol of the decaying marriage within, there are ample opportunities for it. The narrator of the album spitefully hopes not for revenge or salvation, but for a shaving cut (“No Children”). He notes the fruit on the trees and the water strains on the ceiling. Minor details like this make the whole scene around them harden like concrete, in the tradition of the best poetry.
For all that Darnielle’s wavery vocals, minimalist accompaniment and literary sensibilities provide, his greatest strength is how he stands back and lets the material speak for itself.
Knowing that Tallahassee is both the birth of a new musical era in the life of The Mountain Goats, and the tying off of a thread that had run through their career up until that point only serves to increase the album’s savor. A palpable sense of inevitability and dread hangs over an album already saturated with themes of deterioration. No happy endings here, and just like all tragedies, the participants ultimately bring the sky down on themselves because they simply can’t act any other way and still be who they are.
For all that Darnielle’s wavery vocals, minimalist accompaniment and literary sensibilities provide, his greatest strength is how he stands back and lets the material speak for itself. With the exception of The Sunset Tree and to a lesser extent “We Will All of Us Be Healed,” there’s almost no autobiographical Mountain Goats material. Darnielle writes about characters and situations that are his own slightly dreamlike poetic inventions, and the difference in perspective is notable.
When he croons, “People say friends don’t destroy one another/What do they know about friends?” in “Game Shows Touch Our Lives,” it’s heartbreakingly straightforward. There’s no attempt to delight in his wordplay, or wink at the audience to downplay the somewhat clichéd nature of the line, and no mark of vindictiveness or self-righteousness. There’s no attempt to use lavish instrumentation or tortured vocals to make the line into something epic and larger than life. The line simply hangs there, tinged slightly by the natural sympathy of a creator toward his creations, malformed as they may be.
Why does everybody shout for “No Children” and then join in on the choruses every time? Perhaps this is because the song takes the listener so far down a spiral that, just like the Darnielle promises, there’s nothing to do but belt it out at the top of your lungs. It doesn’t promise to make things any better, nor does it promise to give anything meaning, but there’s nothing else to be done. The catharsis that comes when the “Alpha Couple” hits absolute rock bottom is hard, uncompromising and like nothing else in music. Tallahasse teaches no lessons, offers no glamorization of its subject matter and seemingly couldn’t care less what we think of it.
The Mountain Goats – Tallahassee tracklist:
- “First Few Desperate Hours”
- “Southwood Plantation Road”
- “Game Shows Touch Our Lives”
- “The House That Dripped Blood”
- “Idylls of the King”
- “No Children”
- “See America Right”
- “International Small Arms Traffic Blues”
- “Have to Explode”
- “Old College Try”
- “Oceanographer’s Choice”
- “Alpha Rats Nest”