Can one, in point of fact, ache for a town like Tallahassee? Furthermore, can a record that is only tangentially “about” Tallahassee, be the spur for any Tallahassee-related aches? Ummm… shouldn’t really, though the new Mountain Goats platter on 4AD (quick aside to ooh and ahh at the packaging, striking as usual for the 4AD design department) does fill me with a certain melancholy when I see the name of my last haunt all over the CD cover and press release. Cuz somehow, however unintentionally, John Darnielle and his Mountain Goats do invoke the strangeness and sadness so inherent to North Florida livin’. A tip of the cap, and a dab of the handkerchief then, as it were. Hey isn’t this the record that collects a whole new batch of songs Darnielle wrote about the mythical “Alpha Couple” in Tallahassee? A relationship that disintegrated amidst threats of divorce when the woman just walked out? Yes? Okay. Does it seem at all strange that Darnielle can wrench such beauty out of such damaged subject matter? Only if your conception of beauty is limited to Hallmark cards. And I pray it’s not, for both of our sakes.
Quietly strummed core piece “Tallahassee” has a wonderful line about “half the whole town gone for the summer” that makes a college town’s summer break seem like the most tragic thing in the world. Gorgeous portrait of couple claustrophobia. It’s better even than Eyes Wide Shut. Fact: I never drove down “Southwood Plantation Road” the whole time I was in Tallahassee, but Darnielle makes it seem like the site of a climactic battle between the sexes (“we are gonna stay married!”) to rival Bull Run, all with a hoarse “la la la la la.” Surely it should be an historical landmark by now. And by the fourth verse of the plaintive, and maybe even downright desperate, “Game Shows Touch Our Lives,” when Darnielle almost yelps “Our house sinking into disrepair/ But look at this showroom/ Full of fabulous prizes,” I’m a mess too. I’m not embarrassed to admit that this is one of those sing-in-the-car-over-the-top songs. “House That Dripped the Blood” adds some Cramps-esque teeth to the Mountain Goats’ silvery tongue, distorted bass, atonal harmonica and a guitar strummed so hard for even more blood. Rollicking music hall folk might SEEM to be an inappropriate format for the mammoth explosions of mutual hate (“I hope you die/ I hope we both die”) and vitriol that make up “No Children.” But it’s not. If only all couples were this honest. And again, with the hard-driving swamp blues on “See America Right.” It’s exhilarating, especially that guitar break, like revenge, like hot twilight nights with one other and claustrophobia. “International Small Arms Traffic Blues” sees Darnielle comparing the Alpha Couple’s love to various global trouble spots and catastrophes in a gorgeous, understated manner. I usually don’t reward clever wordplay EVER, but he does it so quietly, not like most smug punsters. The piano on “Have to Explode” adds an unbearable finality and gravity to the Alpha Couple’s weariness that Darnielle channels with all the empathy of a psychic medium. And the line about lying on the tile floor, trying to keep cool? I’d give my arm for that line. “Oceanographer’s Choice” is all weirdly oblique and urgent – that kinda puts me in the mind of Dy**n, and I know I shouldn’t say that but oh well, it’s how I feel so there you go. It’s violent too, good noise roars in the distance and “night comes to Tallahassee.” Darnielle’s a magician. Using a formula that, to all appearances, either shouldn’t work or be too trite to even countenance (one literate man with an acoustic guitar), the Mountain Goats create affecting outsider art and expression. And it rocks too, fuckers.
4AD Records: http://www.4AD.com/