The Mountain Goats’ latest album may come as a shock to longtime Goats listeners. Gone is the trademark boombox-taped lo-fi Mountain Goats sound and in its place is full-blown studio sound courtesy of well-respected producer Tony Doogan (Mogwai, Belle & Sebastian) and on well-respected label 4AD (Pixies, Cocteau Twins, Throwing Muses). While the sound on Tallahassee may be much more polished than any prior Mountain Goats release, all of their strengths are plainly apparent. Frontman and only permanent Goat John Darnielle bolsters his claim to the title of indie-rock’s poet laureate with witty and insightful lyrics about a doomed-from-the-start marriage lying stagnantly in Tallahassee, Florida. His furious strumming is matched by his nasal voice, passionate and confident, making lyrics that other artists would be hard-pressed to pull off sound beautiful and perfectly fitting.
“Our conversations are like minefields,” Darnielle wails on the album’s standout track, “Southwood Plantation Road,” “No one’s found a safe way through one yet.” His penchant for the Homeric simile is nowhere more apparent than on the slightly over-the-top “International Small Arms Traffic Blues,” with its memorable comparison “Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania … there is a shortage in the blood supply, but there is no shortage of blood.” Tallahassee’s concept grows tired at times—one wonders in just how many ways this relationship can be described, but the arch to the album is successfully completed with the blithe closer “Alpha Rats’ Nest,” a hopeful plea for a happy perpetuation of this love/hate relationship.
Tallahassee is a fine introduction to the Mountain Goats for those that might have been turned off by their rougher, home-recorded releases, and for fans weaned on these, the record is a compromise easily made. Most of the tracks feature only Darnielle and his guitar and when a song is heavily produced, such as the stunning, piano-laden “No Children,” the song is so good that to complain about the sellout hi-fi rendering would be pointless. Songs as well-written as these shine through no matter how they’re produced.