There are many great storytellers in the music world. Tom Waits, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan pop into my mind almost immediately. But one artist, in my opinion, rises above the rest. He has the ability to not only tell a story but absolutely transport you to a specific moment in time. While you’re there, not only do you get a complete picture of your surroundings but also you get a true sounding of what that character is feeling. While the band’s name is The Mountain Goats, the person behind the words is John Darnielle. His albums tackle many topics, from living in a small town to what it’s like to grow up in a family of professional wrestlers. While all of his albums tell heartbreaking, uplifting, and sometimes downright hilarious stories, there is one that is simply transcendent in its literary craftmanship. In 2002 The Mountain Goats released Tallahassee, their first studio album where they were backed by a full band. The music is great and helps to put exclamation points where Darnielle wants to emphasize his message, but if you were to just look at the lyrics on a page you’d find rich poetry that paints an intriguing portrait of a marriage slowly going down the tubes.
While the major theme of the album sounds like a real bummer, and it is, the way Darnielle revels in in the bummer…ness is what differentiates Tallahassee from any other album that deals with the end of a relationship. The couple that the album revolves around knows that the relationship is toxic, and instead of extricating themselves from the situation, which would be the logical thing to do, they lean into it. This would normally make characters unlikable which in turn would make the story uninteresting, but Darnielle strikes a really interesting balance that not only speaks to what it’s like to be stuck in a bad relationship, but also the mental health issues that come along with addiction. The key to this as far as the way this story is told is Darnielle’s powerful and surprising use of imagery, specifically simile and metaphor throughout the album.
In fact, the albums first song is an extended metaphor that does a great job of exposition at the same time. The titular song “Tallahassee” sets up the couple’s cross country move into a house that is the setting for the duration of the album. It aptly sets up the malaise, if not impending doom, felt by the narrator. There is a lot to unpack in the first stanza.
“Windows facing an ill-kempt front yard/
Plums on the trees heavy with nectar/
Prayers to summon the destroying angel/
Moon stuttering in the sky like film stuck in a projector/
While the first two lines paint a nice picture at first glance, it’s the third line that makes them seem sinister. The house becomes a prison for the couple in a sense when you consider that while there is something inherently fearsome about the thought of a destroying angel, the destroying angel is also the name of a species of mushroom that is super deadly when eaten. This mushroom is common in long grass and near the edge of tree lines, perhaps in an ill-kempt front yard, or under a plum tree. Death from this type of mushroom comes from liver and kidney failure, which could be seen as some pretty heavy foreshadowing for the alcohol-soaked days to come.
It’s almost as if the house, as it overlooks the toxic mushrooms growing in the front yard, is lying in wait for the couple to arrive. In a way this is reminiscent of an establishing shot one might see in a horror movie. The fourth line works to remind us that, yes, they are stuck, but being film stuck in a projector has a couple different implications. This situation, like a movie captured on film, is something they are going to knowingly watch as the story unfolds and there is nothing they can/will do to stop it. It’s that car crash that nobody can stop looking at. In the first four lines, Darnielle manages to not only set up the situation, but through metaphor also tells the listener exactly what is going to happen while conveying perfectly the feelings of the narrator.
The second stanza isolates the couple even more, while again through metaphor gets a little bit more into the couple’s headspace.
“Twin prop airplanes passing loudly overhead/
Road to the airport two lanes clear.”
Again, we get some great imagery that sets the scene and if we dive a bit deeper we get a hint at the overlying conflict at hand. The airplanes are leaving Tallahassee, which is made clear by the third line:
“Half the whole town gone for the summer.”
The planes could represent the desire to leave, to go somewhere else, as well as representing the wish to transcend and rise above their current state of addiction—an addiction not just to alcohol, but also to each other. The road to the airport, which is clear in both directions, hints at the fact that they are free to make a choice. They could choose to physically leave, together or separately. They could end their relationship, but because they are so dependent on each other, it’s really more of a non-choice. This also acts as some solid foreshadowing for the story to come. The open lanes to the airport also serve as a solid metaphor for addiction. If the airplanes represent the desire to transcend alcoholism, the road represents an ability to rise above, but the fact that they don’t use them, or even seem to think about using them as an option, seems to indicate a definite lack of willingness do something about it.
The last stanza serves to reinforce the desperate situation that they seem to be in.
“There is no deadline/
There is no schedule? There is no plane we can fall back on/
The road this far can’t be retraced.”
They are stuck there in Tallahassee with each other, and they don’t know how they wound up there, both literally and figuratively. They’ve reached a point where all their previous choices have rendered their current relationship unrecognizable, and there is no way back to what may have been a loving relationship. The last three lines extend the film metaphor from the first chorus “
There is no punchline anybody can tack on/
There are loose ends by the score/
What did I come down here for?/
There is clearly nothing to joke about, no light heartedness, something a screenwriter might add to lighten things up a little bit. While loose ends are something most films try to clean up, Darnielle wants us to know that this story is going to be complicated and messy, basically a bad movie, that Darnielle is going to make us listen to with glee and terror.
My first impulse was to write a column about the entire album, but there are just too many rich veins of imagery and metaphor to explore. And I need a drink. So, check back next month as we go through song two of Tallahassee, “First Few Desperate Hours.” If you haven’t yet, give the whole album a listen. It’s a master class in storytelling.