Solo songwriters, more than anyone else in the music world, really put themselves out there. If Bob Dylan makes a bad album, who's to blame besides Bob Dylan? There's no, "oh, the drummer screwed this one up for us." It's all on one person. Under that style, there's songwriters who run with it, and there's songwriters who don't make it through the front door's threshold without tripping. John Darnielle, known to most as the sole voice and guitar of the Mountain Goats, is a modern day master of his medium.
Darnielle is developing quite the cult following as of late, with eager fans trading early, tape-only recordings, and anything else Mountain Goats they can get their hands on. His lo-fi acoustic recordings and the characters he describes are beginning to take on a life all of their own. For good reason, the songs on Tallahassee, and all of his other recordings, have the most genuine, honest feel of anything I have ever heard. Darnielle's characters are often rife with stories of broken down mindsets and dead end lives, yet still maintain a warmth and radiance that will paint the brightest of pictures in your head. That's what makes him so special, the imagery of these songs is so distinct, so life-like, you'd never know it was fiction.
The songs are so simple at their basis, with a relatively easy strumming pattern, and a gritty, yet clear vocal style, but the stories provide the complexity that no chord progression could. The characters are presented with such a fragile state of mind, but such a strong sense of life. Sure, you've heard songs about divorce before, but Darnielle's conviction is unwavering, and that's why you see the husband and wife, you aren't merely listening. Such a deep and personal look is offered that it may even be a bit much for some. The story of Tallahasse is centered around a married couple who move to Florida to escape their old life, but things sour quickly, ending anything but how they intended. Through even the more upbeat sounding tracks, Darnielle maintains a spiteful, sarcastic narrative, never wavering from the crystal clear look that the lyrics provide: "And I hope when you think of me years down the line, you can't find one good thing to say. / And I'd hope that if I found the strength to walk out / You'd stay the hell out of my way."
Cynical as that might be, it conveys the exact themes and sentiments that are so commonplace with the album, themes that are chronologically detailed as the album progresses. It's amazing just how rich in detail every song actually is, with "Game Shows Touch Or Lives" bringing out the best Darnielle has to offer;
Turn the volume up real high, all of that money, look at it fly / And you smoking like a chimney / Shadows crawled across the living room's length / I held onto you with a desperate strength, with everything. with everything in me / I handed you a drink of the lovely little thing on which our survival depends / People say friends don't destroy one another, what do they know about friends? / Thunder clouds forming, cream white moon, everything's gonna be okay soon / Maybe tomorrow, maybe the next day.The emotions of Darnielle's characters run the gamut on this record, as do the ideas he was willing to add. For the first time, there's small bits and pieces of musical accompaniment. Harmonica, bass, and drums all find themselves on the album by way of "Oceanographer's Choice," the Mountain Goats' first foray into a full band sound, and while it's decent, Darnielle is certainly much more effective in a solo setting, letting his characters firmly embed themselves into your head.
While this is not the Mountain Goats' best effort, the characters and the stories that Darnielle present are still leaps and bounds ahead of most music today. He has the ability to say in 50 words what would take others 500, and that's not something that can be tought or learned. Tallahassee has its rough patches, yes, but you'd be crazy to think you could find better stories or a more seasoned voice to tell them.