Playing God
The Mountain Goats - Tallahassee

i love The Mountain Goats’ Tallahassee. Despite what critics and certainly other ‘Goats fans might say, it’s one of my favorite records. And I’ll be the first to admit that the album isn’t one of his best. It’s not because he gave up the boombox recordings for the studio and it has nothing to do with adding the drums, bass, keyboards, or John Vanderslice to the mix. Tallahassee never really emerges as a great record because Darnielle sets up an epic storyline and fails to make good on it. Sure, there are epic songs aplenty, like “See America Right,” “No Children,” “Oceanographer’s Choice” and the title track, but there’s also a lot of dead weight—“Idylls of the King,” “Peacocks,” “Alpha Desperation March” which do little to progress any of the tragic story. I’d like to imagine that Darnielle went ahead and re-recorded a number of the songs from his “Alpha Series” for the concept album—songs recorded throughout the Goats’ discography that had originally set-up the story of the couple featured in Tallahassee.

I’d also like to imagine that the whole story takes place like a stage play, with the couple singing the verses back and forth at one another. While this could sound like a strange conceit, the format works perfectly with John’s verse-chorus-verse-chorus-outro formula for songwriting. The story happens in sixteen tracks and three acts. To make a better album, liberties have been taken, but the tracks are assembled to tell a story with maximum efficiency—there is little slowing down over the next sixteen songs.


“Tallahassee” is as an understated prelude to the story. Jumping ahead in the “alpha couple” narrative to when all has gone to hell and the two are sitting around wondering what in the hell they’re doing in this run-down house in Florida, the song sets the scene for what’s to come: the couple’s impending doom and their inability to cope with it. Like the original sequencing of Tallahassee, the title song encapsulates the rest of the story with one of its bleakest moments, with the characters asking, “what did I come down here for? You? You.” And, Darnielle sings it with all the doubt and desperation of a love impossible to save. The stage is set, the lights come up, and we begin.


Southwood Plantation Road
Alpha Gelida
First Few Desperate Hours
Game Shows Touch Our Lives
Alpha Incipiens

Here on “Southwood Plantation Road,” “where the dead will walk again” is a house, a couple, some booze, and a whole lot of hope to beat the odds. All night long, they’re giggling, and screaming, brown eyes deeper than a dream. John’s voice breaks a couple times running into the fantastic “la la la la la!” that should characterize the start of any great relationship.

A few nights later, the doubts are upon them, but “Alpha Gelida” stays upbeat, with fists pumping against the hesitant, booze-heavy air. “Let the young lions come! Let me break their jaws with my bare fingers!” the characters sing in unison. And for just a few verses, it appears that everything is on the up and up, for us and them. “Alpha Gelida” is an early Alpha track and the fidelity is pretty off. Regardless, John and his guitar come through clear—the song is rife with the uninhibited excitement that runs through “Southwood Plantation Road.” Slow it down just a hair, throw on some Peter Hughes and a little Vanderslice production, and you would have had a great third track.

But by the time “First Few Desperate Hours” hits, we know where things are going in its first line (“Bad luck comes in from Tampa”). The honesty (sobriety?) is starting to kick in: “We keep up the good fight, just to keep our spirits light! But they drop like flies! And there’s a stomach-churning shift in the way the land lies!” We all know where this is going, and it isn’t good.

The honeymoon is over, and the relationship hits a level of serious stagnation, as “Game Shows Touch Our Lives” illustrates. “I handed you a drink of the lovely little thing, on which our survival depends…” sings one of them, watching the dream crumble before a television blaring Pat Sajak and Alex Trebek. The couple goes upstairs to make love only to find the whole house falling apart around them (“Your drunken kisses as light as the air / Our house sinking into disrepair”). The next morning is the inception of everything horrible that is yet to come, and with a desperate “the only thing I know is that I love you and I’m holding on! Yeah!” the stage goes forebodingly dark: it’s all coming down.


Alpha Double Negative
International Small Arms Traffic Blues
No Children
See America Right

The lights come back up and the second act begins: “Alpha Double Negative: Going To Catalina” recaps the state of things, but with an added air of frustration as the couple resign to where the relationship is heading (“I know what you’re saying, and what you’re saying it for—but I’m not listening anymore”). Even better, there is a return to the defiant sentiment of “Alpha Gelida” but with a twist—“and I hear you coming towards me / I see the sun climb down the sky / I hear your voice getting stronger and faster / And I see a stranger in your eyes”—signaling that the end is coming and it is coming fast.

Now the couple is down to the goddamn Hood River vodka, and if either blinks, the other’s gonna make off with the rest of the alcohol. Enter one of the most unrecognized tracks on Tallahassee, “International Small Arms Traffic Blues,” which is included here both as a setup for what’s coming, and for its fantastic final lyric, delivered so much better live than on the album: “there is a shortage in the blood supply / But there’s no goddamn shortage of blood / The way I feel about you baby can’t explain it / You’ve got the best of my love!” And the couple means it honestly—they’ve given each other the best of what they have to give—but it wasn’t nearly enough. They run off to Tampa Bay for one last hurrah, and “The Alphonse Mambo” takes it to the edge, just “waiting for the other shoe to drop in Tampa Bay!”

And it does.

“No Children” is the big breakdown, where the couple let loose at each other—wife first, and husband bettering her with his “hand in lovable hand” retort. If there was one song that proves Darnielle is a master of writing ‘bitter-and-biting-but-goddamn-I-LOVE-YOU!’ sentiment, “No Children” is it. To the point that going to a Mountain Goats show could mean joining a crowd of kids singing “I HOPE WE BOTH DIE!” at the top of their lungs, “No Children” is the rubberneck climax impossible to ignore. The destruction continues through “See America Right”’s epic mess—letting the second act and the relationship down hard. The lights go out to punctuate the last strum of their relationship.


Old College Try
Oceanographer’s Choice
Alpha In Tauris

By the third act, all that is left is nostalgia. “Old College Try” remembers a moment shortly before the end with the fondest memories and the greatest hopes. The song is another underappreciated classic with Darnielle penning one of his most touching lines—“and I will walk down to the end with you / If you will come all the way down with me.” A commitment the couple kept.

“Oceanographer’s Choice” plays out as the final huge celebration of all the love that once was. Lovers run toward one another, and collapse in unbridled passion, lustful intoxication, and belief in one another. The tension rides throughout the track with lyrics like “I stubbed my cigarette out against the west wall / I quickly lit another” and “what will I do when I don’t have you to hang onto in the dark?” Lost in feelings of nostalgia and regret, “Oceanographer’s Choice” remakes past and present into paradox—“I don’t mean it when I tell you that I don’t love you anymore!”

“Alpha In Tauris” is the final of the reminiscent tracks, returning from the flashback of “Oceanographer’s Choice,” and left alone in the house, watching a partner wave goodbye for the last time. And with that, the story comes to a brief and dramatic close.

Alpha Omega

As Darnielle himself has stated, “Alpha Omega” is the last song in the couple’s story. It plays here as an epilogue—the protagonist is left alone with boiled peanuts from Cairo, Georgia. If “Tallahassee” encapsulates the album’s concept-story, then “Alpha Omega” encapsulates the effects of the story. Resulting from the isolation of loneliness or as the only reprieve from the past, each banal detail of every day is recounted in “Alpha Omega” to a hollowed end.

By: Peter Galassi and Nate DeYoung
Published on: 2006-02-20
Comments (3)

Today on Stylus
October 31st, 2007
October 31st, 2007
Recently on Stylus
October 30th, 2007
October 29th, 2007
October 30th, 2007
October 29th, 2007
Recent Music Reviews
Recent Movie Reviews