I was talking about favourite albums in a pub with a friend (her choice was Otis Redding’s The Dock of the Bay, which is an excellent selection, btw). This got me to thinking about The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee (undoubtedly my favourite album). I would never argue that it’s the best album ever made - how would you define that anyway? – but it’s something that’s exceptionally special to me. So I thought I might write some thoughts about why that is.
I first discovered the Mountain Goats when a friend of mine leant me Tallahassee. It’s an album that gripped me from first listen – I wanted to listen to the songs over and over again, to pore over the lyrics, to uncover their hidden meanings. I’ve listened to the band more than anyone else in recent years, and they’ve got many good albums, but this is the album I always return to. Every time I listen I get caught up in the stories all over again, and every so often there’s something new that I stumble on: a perfect lyric or a hidden meaning I’d never before spotted. There isn’t a single song on the album that I don’t love and wouldn’t listen to on its own. And they all have something powerful and interesting to say.
I guess you could describe it as a concept album, in that it’s based around the central theme of a married couple (the ‘Alpha couple’, who feature in a number of The Mountain Goats’ earlier songs), seemingly constantly on the verge of an acrimonious break-up. The album chronicles their move to Tallahassee, to a crumbling house, in an effort to escape their problems. But all this results in is a deepening of their hatred for themselves and each other, and they begin to drink themselves to death.
If this sounds depressing, well in places it is. But this is much more than a morose deconstruction of a break-up. In parts it’s a celebration of their love and where it all went wrong. It’s a chronicle of all the good and the bad, celebrated and reviled in equal measure. As John puts it in Idylls of the King:
Our shared paths unravelling behind us like ribbons
Muscially, the album is simple but effective. It’s typical of The Mountain Goats’ style, driven by acoustic guitar and John Darnielle’s distinctive singing. John is a great exponent of ‘sing it like you fucking mean it’. There’s a passion and honesty to the songs. These aren’t someone else’s stories he’s just happening to tell, these are his stories, his pain, his joy. He sounds like he feels every line of every song, strongly and deeply, and it’s hard not to get caught up in that.
The track that’s most ‘famous’ (in that it’s the one everyone shouts for at live shows) is No Children, which is the song that first hooked me to the album and the band. It’s a wonderfully euphoric song of hate and despair, urging you to sing along with the protagonist as he revels in the horror of the situation:
I am drowning, There is no sign of land, You are coming down with me, Hand in unlovable hand, And I hope you die, And I hope we both die
Lyrically is where Tallahassee really shows its teeth - the whole album is full of amazing lines. There’s a great section in Game Shows Touch Our Lives, which I think captures something about the power of strong emotions that can build something great and then tear it all to pieces:
Shadows crawled across the living room’s length I held onto you with a desperate strength With everything, with everything in me And I handed you a drink of the lovely little thing On which our survival depends People say friends don’t destroy one another What do they know about friends?
There’s also real affection conveyed along the way, for example, in Southwood Plantation Road:
All night long you giggle and scream Your brown eyes deeper than a dream I am not going to lose you We are going to stay married
Or in Game Shows Touch Our Lives:
Your drunken kisses as light as the air Maybe everything that falls down eventually rises
I love these little touches – you can see there’s times where the love they once felt still lingers, and that they still desperately want this to work, even though a lot of what they had died years before. It’s something that only comes out as you listen to the album more, a hidden depth to be explored and enjoyed.
There’s so much to find, to enjoy in this album. I’m tempted to quote lines from every song. If you’ve read this far and don’t know the album, I urge you to give it a try, to listen to what John has to say, and I hope you’ll enjoy some of the things I love about it.
It’s probably best to finish with the last lines of the final song on the album, Alpha Rats Nest, as they provide a fitting summary of what the album is all about:
Yeah, sing for the damage we’ve done, And the worse things that we’ll do, Open your mouth up and sing for me now, And I will sing for you