Not Everyone Can Live Like Millionaires
Why aren't The Mountain Goats massive? Why isn't John Darnielle (the unifying factor in all the many incarnations of the 'Goats) as famous as Ryan Adams, or at least as big a cult hero as Conor Obrest, (whose songs sometimes remind me of Darnielle's, only about a half as good)? And why do I find myself trembling with desperate delight every time I hear Mr Darnielle's voice breaking over the speakers and over my soul like the stinging salt I recall from my youth as I stood shrieking into the waves that crashed on the rocks of the ballast bank?
The Mountain Goats have made a whole host of amazing records in their time. From the impossibly obscure Shrimper cassettes of the early '90s through a batch of equally impossibly rare 7"s like the ace 'Phylira' to 'proper' albums like Zopilote Machine, Sweden, Full Force Galesburg, Nine Black Poppies (featuring the shriek-a-long classic 'Cubs In Five'), All Hail West Texas and a whole load more, Mountain Goats have long been the undervalued and unsung heroes of the kind of frantic folk you only get when you fuse one of the fiercest intellects in Pop (or Rock or whatever the hell you wanna call it today) with an obsession for the sweetest sharpest sounds you can conceive of. A love of Stockholm Monsters naturally only adds to Mr Darnielle's appeal.
On Tallahassee, Darnielle is joined by old Inland Empire and Nothing Painted Blue / Diskothiq chum Peter Hughes and, on three tracks, Franklin Bruno (and whaddya mean you never heard of Nothing Painted Blue? Get some education. Sheesh.) Bruno once said that 'language should be an action that has an effect... like a blow to the head', which explains maybe why NPB's songs are amongst the cleverest, wordiest ever, but I'd wager that Darnielle feels the same because really Mountain Goats records have always been as much about words as about music. Darnielle uses words in a way rarely seen in Pop since the days when Bobby Dylan could piss off half of a whole generation by picking up an electric guitar, and listening to Tallahassee is not a little unlike plucking Another Side off the shelf and transposing it to a 21st Century place inhabited by 'the alpha couple' on the verge of pulling each other apart in a tragicomic movie by Todd Solondz. Witness for example the bitter, biting 'No Children', a song that romps along with a tune like a battering ram, and with lyrics that start with "I hope that our few remaining friends give up on trying to save us. I hope we come up with a failsafe plot to piss the dumb few that forgave us." and end with "I am drowning, there is no sign of land, and you are coming down with me, hand in unlovable hand. And I hope you die, I hope we both die" it's truly a marvellously honest and bare moment in Pop. In a similar light is the following single 'See America Right', a song in which Darnielle's character proclaims his love for another, but has to temper it with "but my love is like a dark cloud full of rain that's always right there up above you." It's as if the characters lack the strength, or the will to believe in the positive force of love; it's as though they can see only darkness and desolation. There are gentler moments too, of course, although they are no less dark. There's the beautifully pared down 'International Small Arms Traffic' in which love is compared to "the border between Greece and Albania - trucks loaded down with weapons crossing over every night"', or 'Old College Try' which has a wonderful swirling organ sweeping up the ashes after that "trashcan fire in a prison cell".
Dark, world-weary, guilt-soaked, fiercely soulful and compellingly melodic in a just off-centre way (the best way, naturally), Tallahassee is the first Great Album of 2003. Now go and make John Darnielle a household name.
© 2003 Alistair Fitchett