- by Brian Thompson Rating:9 Release Date:2002-11-05 Label: 4AD
From the crisp hum of its reserved, muted opening title track, it is abundantly clear that Tallahassee is a very different album for The Mountain Goats. The move to the 4AD label saw a tremendous shift in sound; where the previous records felt like John Darnielle was sitting alone in a basement somewhere screaming into a four-track recorder, this change in representation was marked with full-band instrumentation. Following the raw magnetism of All Hail West Texas, Tallahassee boasts a polished sheen without losing any of the barebones anguish or outrage which had garnered such a devoted following.
One of many fleshed out concept albums for The Mountain Goats, Tallahassee chronicles a single continuous, linear story, following the demise of a vicious and turbulent marriage. What makes the album so hopelessly devastating isn’t a lack of control on the part of its characters. They were in the driver’s seat all along, and look at where it got them. They weren’t forced into these roles; a series of their own naive choices landed them there. In some of the album’s more optimistic moments ("Idylls of the King," "Peacocks"), the couple seems to aim for a tender last-ditch effort to mend what’s been broken, however, Darnielle paints this as little more than empty delusion
In reality, they are longing for an escape, any brief respite from the prison they find themselves entombed in, whether it be packing up and skipping town ("First Few Desperate Hours") or consuming cheap liquor and mindless television ("Game Shows Touch Our Lives"). When they are unable to fill the void and are forced to face the harsh reality of their situation, it often results in tracks like "Southwood Plantation Road," a lively campfire sing-a-long that blends the agony and desperation of an imploded marriage with imagery of American slavery and the living dead.
By the time Tallahassee reaches its spiteful centerpiece “No Children,” the listener is thrust into a devastating portrait of bitterness as they sift through the ruins of a failed relationship. Frothing with contempt, there’s a reason why this is the song that John Darnielle will never be able to escape. Later on, the characters look back on what initially drew them together, as the wedding chapel organ of “Old College Try” frames an introspective flashback. Even so, the conclusion seems to be that they were making promises that they were far too young to comprehend, turning a blind eye to what they would later recognize as unmistakable red flags: “The warning signs have all been bright and garish / Far too great in number to ignore.”
Whether it is showing off crunchy, distorted rockers ("The House That Dripped Blood," "See America Right," "Oceanographer's Choice") or whispering eerie, measured ballads ("International Small Arms Traffic Blues," "Have to Explode"), Tallahassee serves as an aggressive and crippling showcase of John Darnielle’s sonic and emotional range. It is an acute journey through genuine turmoil that truly boils the blood. As the album reaches its resolution with "Alpha Rats Nest," we are caught somewhere between acceptance and resignation.