To begin, a disclaimer: my musical background is largely classical, with some musical theater thrown in and the occasional pop/punk/alternative/indie album I fixate on every few years. I play the French horn, and have been in marching band for nine years of my life. This series is how I intend to expand my musical horizons. I know very little about popular music, and even less about writing album reviews. I have never even read an album review. I once opened a copy of Rolling Stone, if that counts for anything.
I was inspired to write this after hearing an interview with John Darnielle on NPR one evening while I was building a bookshelf in my apartment. Terry Gross, who was interviewing Darnielle, played a sample of “No Children” from The Mountain Goats’ album Tallahassee. The song was dark and sad but catchy as hell, and I bought the album as soon as the interview was finished. So props to you, NPR, for successfully selling at least one copy of a fourteen-year-old Mountain Goats album.
Tallahassee was released in 2002, meaning I’m well over a decade late to the party that is The Mountain Goats, despite the fact that people have been telling me to listen to them since roughly 2007, when I first began to exude the tell-tale teenage angst and melancholy that is apparently attractive to indie folk bands. As I read on Wikipedia, Tallahassee is apparently about a married couple on the cusp of divorce, although this narrative could probably be missed completely on the first listen.
The music itself reminds me of a mashup of They Might Be Giants and The Shins, which—in my opinion—is the second best mashup possible, behind Ke$ha and Mumford and Sons. I really dig the combination of the melancholic lyrics and upbeat sound, like in “First Few Desperate Hours,” and as someone who usually listens to musical theater soundtracks, I value Darnielle’s lyrics for both their poetic value and narrative drive.
While I have yet to listen to any of The Mountain Goats’ more recent albums, I find Tallahassee to be fairly timeless. There are tons of great albums out there, but lots of them feel dated after ten years. In both sound and subject matter, though, Tallahassee has the ability to remain relevant. The topic of a love gone sour is one that will always be relatable to at least one person, and even if Tallahassee isn’t a break-up album, it’s emotionally visceral, and walks a steady line between anger, absurdity, and poignancy. The words are distant enough to be accessible, but personal enough that the sentiments come off as genuine.
“No Children” is by far my favorite song on the album, probably because it was the first one I listened to, but also largely because I find its universality to be cathartic. The lyrics are angry and raw, but they’re honest. While Darnielle claims that Tallahassee is one of the few Mountain Goats albums that is not autobiographical, the sentiment and specificity of “No Children” begs to differ. I once had a professor tell me that when writing narrative fiction, the key to appealing to a wide audience lies in the details—people will relate better to a specific description of an emotion than they will to something generalized. In “No Children,” Darnielle sings about a love lost, but not in the same saccharine, weepy way that most pop artists do. Instead, he channels his anger into an oddly-specific anti-ballad in which he sings, “I hope you die, I hope we both die.” If I had any sort of database of musical knowledge, I might compare Tallahassee to Johnny Cash, but I only know, like, four Johnny Cash songs from Walk The Line, so any comparison is based in my Joaquin Phoenix-version of Cash.
At its core, Tallahassee is visceral, angry, and honest, and I dig it. Do I wish there was more variation in the sound? Maybe a little. Listening to the album straight through is a good exercise, but it gets monotonous. The Mountain Goats’ sound is unique enough to be identifiable, but not incredibly varied within the album, making the second or third consecutive listening of the album somewhat tedious, despite being lyrically dense.
If we’re using the old Netflix star ratings system (one star: hated it; two stars: didn’t like it; three stars: liked it; four stars: really liked it; five stars: loved it), Tallahassee would receive a solid four stars. I’m a generous rating-giver, but in the same way that I will never tell the doctor that my pain is a 10, I can’t give the first album I review five stars. Maybe I’ll come back in a few months and re-review Tallahassee when I’m familiar with more than four complete albums (if you’re curious, those albums are Red – Taylor Swift; 1989 – Taylor Swift; Chutes Too Narrow – The Shins; Sigh No More – Mumford and Sons). Until then, I’ll just continue to listen to my conglomeration of musical soundtracks and Beethoven.
Featured image via The Mountain Goats.