We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
John Darnielle has a way with folies a deux. The lead track on All Hail West Texas, released earlier this year by his usually one-man band the Mountain Goats, relates the fortunes of a couple of misfits from north of Dallas-Fort Worth who find an outlet in the devil’s music. It ends badly, with vows of revenge and a dark warning: “When you punish a person for dreaming his dream/Don’t expect him to thank or forgive you/The best ever death metal band out of Denton/Will in time both outpace and outlive you.” Pummeling the bejesus out of his beleaguered acoustic, Darnielle brays, “Hail Satan!”
It’s a different demon that binds the star-crossed lovers of the new Tallahassee—a close relative, to be sure (“cloven hoof prints turn up in the garden” on Track 2), but less an emblem of self-determination than an agent of mutually assured destruction on a household scale. And this one’s nothing if not persistent, providing Darnielle with all the material he needs to craft a 14-part song cycle that tracks his nameless couple down into the pit.
Divorce albums, as a rule, aren’t fictional. From Marvin Gaye’s bitter, bizarre financial settlement Here, My Dear to David Allan Coe’s Human Emotions—which the blind-sided singer decorated with his ex-wife’s painting of a bovine skull and then divided into a “Happy Side” and a “Su-i-Side,” just in case no one picked up on the theme—such projects proceed not from the brain but the heart, in all its abject, shameless hurt. Except in this case, there’s no reason to think that anything’s amiss between the Iowa-based Darnielle and his beloved Lalitree, who remains a staple of the profuse thank-you list that accompanies each Mountain Goats release. Darnielle is less a tell-it-like-it-is troubadour, laying bare all his soul’s woes, than an imagine-it-as-it’s-not writer of short stories for tenor with rhythm accompaniment. And in keeping with the recent fashion for collections of stories linked by an overarching scheme, Tallahassee never lets the ill-fated lovers out of its sights.
The “Alpha Couple,” as fans have dubbed these longtime objects of Darnielle’s whim, owing to the appearance of “Alpha” in many of the titles that have dealt with them in the past, are ramblers and sots, always on the run from their tortured history together, always headed straight back down the bottle. Tallahassee catches up with them in north Florida, making a last stand in a rundown house on Southwood Plantation Road, which, if Mapquest is to be believed, is a two-mile-long dead end running due south off Old St. Augustine Road into a patch of presumably humid nothing.
As with all Mountain Goats songs, the stuff of the Tallahassee stories is keenly observed and precisely drawn. When “First Few Desperate Hours” introduces the domesticity-bedeviling demon rum, it does so by announcing, “Bad luck comes in from Tampa/On the back of a truck/Doing 90 up the interstate.” Here, Darnielle demonstrates what I assume to be firsthand knowledge of Florida’s Gulf Coast Nexus of Misfortune—whose existence I can attest to because the only real disagreement the missus and I have had in a hen’s age involved a bad cold, a noisy kitchen ventilator, an empty gas tank, a lost cell phone, and a chocolate-chip cookie that did fuck-all to make things better. Location: Tampa. In “Alpha Omega,” a 1995 song that at the time Darnielle figured was the end of the Alpha saga, the Man (we’re going to have to come up with some system of nomenclature for the dramatis personae, and Man/Woman seems as good as any) recalls what he was eating the day the Woman walked out: “boiled peanuts for breakfast from Cairo, Georgia.” The geographic marker is dead-on, not far over the state line from the new album’s setting, and without making a big deal out of it, Darnielle brings us to understand that these briny lumps make for a teary, throat-choking meal.
On Tallahassee’s title track, the plums that on the earlier Full Force Galesburg’s “Original Air-Blue Gown” were “boiled down to pulp/Drying on a screen,” are still “on the tree heavy with nectar.” But unlike those William Carlos Williams swiped from the icebox as a sort of love token, they’ll probably drop into the yard to rot: Bad karma has possessed the Alphas’ house as surely as if they lived in Amityville. Though Darnielle’s songs never have a classic verse-chorus-verse form, they often settle into brief refrains. In “The House That Dripped Blood,” it’s the repeated reminder that “the cellar door is an open throat,” ready to swallow anyone foolish enough to stay behind. In “Old College Try,” it’s the hopeless bargain “I will walk down to the end with you/If you will come all the way down with me.” And “Tallahassee” wraps itself around “you/you,” a bad idea congealed into an unshakeable obsession.
As insistent as all this is, truth be told, none of it is particularly hummable. Though a terrific lyricist, Darnielle simply isn’t much of a melodist—but then he doesn’t need to be. He was a page poet before he became a singer-songwriter, and that background sounds loud and clear throughout his recordings. His prickly singing and his percussive guitar enforce the metrical peculiarities he builds into each elaborate line. It doesn’t hurt that Darnielle is also one of the most distinctive vocalists in rock, unmistakable for anyone else after just a couple of syllables. Before I read that he’d named the Mountain Goats after a line from a Screamin’ Jay Hawkins song, I’d assumed it was a joke about his high-pitched, nasal delivery.
This will be a problem for some listeners. When I went to see the Mountain Goats at Mission Space in Baltimore last month, I couldn’t find any takers for my plus-one—and not because no one around the paper had heard of the band. The opposite, in fact. Darnielle isn’t someone you warm up to. His songs sound best the first time you hear them, in much the same way that stories are most involving when you don’t know how they’ll turn out. Their eccentric conjunction of breakneck strumming and feverish verbosity just isn’t to everyone’s liking. I, however, became an immediate convert in April at the Experience Music Project in Seattle, where Darnielle, seated and solo acoustic, trounced all comers, including Quasi, the estimable headliner, who had pretty close to a home-field advantage. Backed up in Baltimore by bassist Peter Hughes, Darnielle approached the jubilant ferocity of his spring performance only toward the end of his set.
Perhaps that’s because the new disc takes a completely different tack than All Hail West Texas, which was recorded largely on the Panasonic RX-FT500 Darnielle used for much of the ’90s. Although he insists that this balky boombox, which preserves the sound of its own machinery along with anything else you might be intending for it to record, “can legitimately be thought of as a second performer,” you’d have to be quite sentimental about lo-fi integrity to actually deem it an asset. For Tallahassee, Darnielle and Hughes teamed up with 4AD, the meticulous British label that most notably brought us Cocteau Twins and the Pixies. In addition to improved graphic design, the label sprung for production at Cassadaga, N.Y.’s, Tarbox Road Studios, previously host to Mercury Rev and the Flaming Lips. The Lips’ Michael Ivins was on hand to aid producer Tony Doogan and play tambourine, and Hughes’ Nothing Painted Blue bandmate Franklin Bruno contributed guitar and piano.
The larger cast and crew make Tallahassee the Mountain Goats’ most nuanced recording, much more varied in force and effect than the man-and-boombox setup could ever be. The songs are arranged—which, if I correctly remember my Eno, means that not everybody has to be playing full-bore all the time. Darnielle reacts accordingly. Hushed and intimate on “Tallahassee,” “Peacocks,” and “Idylls of the King,” he leaps headlong into the fiercely spat “See America Right,” which was recently released as a single in the U.K.
Although that song is played harder, nothing hits like “No Children.” Tallahassee’s centerpiece is an Irish barroom blessing twisted into a blustering malediction: “I hope it stays dark forever/I hope the worst isn’t over/And I hope you blink before I do/Yeah, I hope I never get sober.” It may be the most perfect thing Darnielle has done: two and a half minutes exquisite in their pettiness and bile, a litany of ill wishes bursting with rage. With only themselves to blame, and no one else to live for, the Alphas lash out at each other, if only for the company. “I am drowning,” the Man says, “There is no sign of land/You are coming down with me/Hand in unlovable hand/And I hope you die/I hope we both die.”
He’ll eventually get what he wants, of course, but there’s little chance the timing will suit him. Nor will the lack of drama. One Alpha may tell the other, “The fuse will have to run out sometime/Something here will eventually have to explode,” but, however resignedly voiced, that’s more a self-aggrandizing fantasy than a probability. The real end, if it ever comes, will be a pitiable affair, vanishingly small.
Until then, there’s no hope of amelioration or recovery. You can’t imagine the Alphas receiving any sort of intervention, successful or not. Their milieu is completely pre-therapeutic, and that’s actually a refreshing thing. It’s as though the omnipresent jargon of healing has made Darnielle envision circumstances that are beyond solution. They’re also beyond diplomacy, the implication of which is as close as the Alphas get to couples counseling. On “International Small Arms Traffic Blues,” which aside from a handful of line repetitions is nothing like a blues, Darnielle comically cocks up the meter, singing, “Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania.” With “Trucks loaded down with weapons/Crossing over every night,” everybody’s well-armed and any battle is likely to be a protracted mess.
That’s the thing about divorce albums: They’re not really about the aftermath—they’re about the ugly fight that no one wins. With Tallahassee, however, Darnielle secures his own victory with decisive force. CP