Pray for Coastal Texas
Bergman’s Through A Glass Darkly

Music of the Week: The Mountain Goats - Tallahassee

I listened to this album once and thought “wow, that’s brilliant, in a twisted sort of way.” Then several months went by before I got around to listening to it again, I think partly because I was in no big hurry to revisit the twisted part. When I finally did, I half-expected to change my mind about the brilliant part. But I didn’t. The Mountain Goats are, or at least were for a long time, a mainly one-man project, and that man, John Darnielle, is one of the most gifted songwriters in pop music, especially in his lyrics.

Musically, this is a pretty stripped-down album, although according to the reviews it’s actually more polished and varied than previous Mountain Goats releases. It’s mostly one or two acoustic guitars, Darnielle’s voice, and occasional percussion, electric guitar, bass, piano, and organ. Most of the guitar you hear is a very propulsively strummed acoustic. Darnielle’s voice is nothing very special, but it seems perfectly suited to the material: direct, pointed, able to convey a combination of anger and despair with controlled vehemence that only makes it more powerful.

So where does the twisted part come in? Well, this is a sort of concept album about an unhappy married couple who have moved, for reasons left obscure, to Tallahassee, where they are engaged in a sort of warfare which is clearly going to be the end of the marriage. When I say they’re “unhappy” I mean…well, here’s a sample lyric. This song begins with a pretty and gentle guitar figure and the words “My love is like…” So you think a tender moment is coming, but what you get is:

My love is like a powder keg
My love is like a powder keg
In the corner
of an empty warehouse
Somewhere just outside of town
About to burn down

The last verse begins “Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania…” The title of the song is “International Small Arms Traffic Blues,” with that traffic as a metaphor for a situation in which two people are busy accumulating weapons to use against each other. Here’s another sample, from the song that seems the emotional climax or rather nadir of the album, “No Children:”

Our friends say it’s darkest before the sun rises
We’re pretty sure they’re all wrong
I hope it stays dark forever
I hope the worst isn’t over

I’m not much of a fan of bitter domestic dramas in any medium, but the thing about this one is that it’s extremely funny. Yes, even those lines I just quoted, in their musical context and with Darnielle’s sardonic delivery, can make you laugh. Rob O’Connor’s eMusic review here says it very well. You can also hear samples at that link.

By the way, an extra attraction for anyone who’s ever lived on the Gulf Coast is that the lyrics are very evocative of the atmosphere—the heat and humidity—of our region.

This is the only thing I’ve heard by The Mountain Goats. I definitely plan to hear more.

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