Though John Darnielle has been writing about his Alpha Couple for
years, in songs like "Alpha Omega" and "Alpha Desperation March"
(memorably covered by Atom and His Package on last year's
Redefining Music), they've never staggered into the spotlight
Man and wife, Darnielle's ongoing mouthpieces of apocalyptic love
manifest, in actions only the blackest and purest sections of the
heart would allow, the kind of symbiotic love that runs as thick as
tar and can be, quite literally, all-consuming. Tallahassee is
their album, a place for the Alphas to watch how love becomes
desperation, and then violent, grasping need; how two people can feed
so completely off each other that worldly concerns become secondary,
tertiary, and then nonexistent.
Tallahassee is a concept album about a house, complete with
characters, setting, subplot, back story, a definite narrative line,
and enough tension to fill a novel. In the opening title track, a
"window faces an ill kept front yard," as, from inside their newly
acquired home, the Alphas watch the "moon stuttering in the sky like
film stuck in a projector." The narrator wonders why he's there, and
then stumbles upon the obvious answer: "You. You."
From the beginning, Darnielle creates a world for his characters,
whom he both loves and pities (and of whose blind and feral devotion
he's inordinately jealous). It's a world inside a dilapidated Florida
house, ostensibly in the middle of nowhere, in the sweltering
humidity, fueled by alcohol and teetering on the brink of implosion.
Their story continues through songs like "Game Shows Touch Our
Lives," in which Alpha Male hands his wife "a drink of the lovely
little thing on which our survival depends," and their concerns about
the purpose of their isolation fade into drunken memory (not that
these concerns were ever too prevalent to begin with). In "The House
That Dripped Blood," the Alpha Home itself becomes a menacing figure
in the Couple's lives "the cellar door is an open throat."
Lyrically, Darnielle loads each line with meaning; when his
characters' mutual adoration turns into something bordering on rage,
we can feel the wind begin to blow.
Darnielle's grasp on the subtlety of human emotions, though, is
something he's fine-tuned over scores of releases, and it's almost a
given that each Mountain Goats album will offer up at least a handful
of harrowing truths. Tallahassee is different because it does
so without the tell-tale tape-hiss concealing the shortcomings of
Darnielle's voice, and without the standard Mountain Goats
accompaniment of a maniacally strummed acoustic guitar. Here, the
sound is full. It's the first time a Mountain Goats project feels
like a cohesive band. Darnielle's voice, benefiting from professional
recording, is complemented by bass, keyboards and occasional
The opening track's hypnotic, repetitive bass line leads you into the
story; by the time Darnielle softly croons the opening lines, you're
in it for the long haul. "See America Right" finds the Mountain Goats
transformed into a rock band drums, loud guitar, barely
restrained vocals. Though the normal Mountain Goats sound
scratchy, temperamental and unforgiving would seem to befit
the story of these two pathetic lovers, the additional instruments
bring a fullness to their story and a sense of atmosphere to their
Tallahassee home that the old way could never have done. And it's
nice to hear the man's voice for once.
As wildly deranged as these characters are, Darnielle makes you feel
overwhelming empathy for them the love for which they
sequester themselves in an old house in order to discover and define
is the kind of love people dream about. In concert, he talks about
the Alpha Couple as if they were old friends. He respects them, and,
by the last track on the album, "Alpha Rats Nest," so do we. The
ending of their story is ambiguous do they kill each other in
the second to last song? Are they reborn at the end? The lyrics are
up for interpretation, but the sincerity of the characters is not.
The last verse begins: "Oh sing sing sing/ For the dying of the day/
Sing for the flames that will rip through here/ And the smoke that
will carry us away."
The Alphas may be done for, but Darnielle's portrait of desperate,
reckless love, as full as a novel and as vibrant as a film, has its
own long life to live.