God, this album is so important to me. It was the first Mountain Goats I listened through all the way, and it’s in a three way tie with Sunset Tree and All Hail West Texas for my favorite album.
The haunting opening melody of Tallahassee is permanently sketched into my mind, and it’s only ingrained even further after almost completely memorizing the captivating liner notes of the album. This entire album is a culmination of everything John had learned through his previous experiences with the other albums, and through the struggles of all the previous characters in his stories. I don’t think this is just the Alpha Couple’s ending. It’s a culmination. And it’s great.
First Few Desperate Hours KICKS this album into full gear, and does a beautiful job illustrating just how fucking manic and crazed the Alpha Couple are as characters. They can’t even fucking MOVE IN in an organized fashion. Them being optimistic, trying to be the best version of themselves, them HAPPY is still described with warning signs and BAD LUCK and THE SUN IS A FUCKING SERIAL KILLER.
Southwood Plantation Road is such a passive aggressive romp and I love it. The beginning songs on this album are so fucking playful, and it illustrates that, the arguments are fucking bad okay, like these are usually arguments that would have already sunk a marriage, but this is NORMAL for the Alpha Couple; hell, this is maybe even them at their best. Their marriage is a minefield at best, and an explosion at its conclusion. They love each other, and they will die because of it. Some people would say it’d be funny if it weren’t so sad. No, it’s funny and it’s fucking sad! They’re pathetic!
Game Shows Touch Our Lives isn’t veiled in any petty fights; they’re too drunk for that. No, they’re too drunk, they’re too in love, and they’re too far gone at this point. God, I hate it when people attach themselves too much to this song (speaking as someone who’s done that in the past). You don’t want to be the Alpha Couple in this situation! It’s a beautiful song, for a beautiful moment, for a terrible marriage, for terrible characters! It’s John’s most beautiful song, and it’s for his most ugly characters, and that’s amazing. It’s haunting, in a different way than Tallahassee is. In Tallahassee, the entire town’s gone for the summer, but in Game Shows Touch Our Lives, the roar of the highway signifies that the Alpha Couple are intentionally cutting themselves off from anything else. This song is meant to convince the characters, and also to the audience, that all of this pain and suffering is WORTH IT. That this is NORMAL, that this is a GAME SHOW and that there is an HONEST TO GOD REWARD AT THE END. There has to be, right? Right? Love isn’t enough. There’s a storm. In the south, it isn’t always apparent when a storm is coming, but it’s there, behind a couple more sunny days.
The House That Dripped Blood isn’t my favorite on the album, but it’s still amazing in its own right. A lot of people read into this song as if it’s after the Alpha Couple has long since moved out, but let me tell you, no, we as an audience are investigating with John in their current living conditions. This is their house. This is where they live. And it’s placed behind Game Shows Touch Our Lives on PURPOSE. It’s the ugliest song on the record, lyrically, for a reason. The CELLAR DOOR IS AN OPEN THROAT, and their MARRIAGE IS STRANGLING THEM.
Idylls of the King is alright. It’s probably my least favorite song on the album. It’s still exciting lyrically, though. It describes beautiful scenery, as if the Alpha Couple is attempting to drive out of their current life, to find an escape from their ugly house, as if another vacation from the vacation that they’re already on will save them. Their marriage is unraveling, in its quiet, patient moments. Their dreams are filled with warning signs. Their love is LIT, and it
EXPLODES in No Children. It’s the perfect love song, and it’s structured in a way to cause the usual audience member to PRAY for an imminent DIVORCE. That is unusual for a song. That isn’t something usually pray for. We don’t want these two characters to suffer anymore. Maybe we’re sympathetic for these terrible people. Maybe we actually know people like them, and GOD DAMN IT please just END it. Maybe we are them, or have been. These characters have given up on change in this song. They are content to die in each other’s arms, possibly grabbing at each other’s throat. The DECEIT of their love, and of the album, is revealed; there is no HAPPY conclusion to their marriage. They cannot keep going south. They will drown.
See America Right is the HANGOVER. Try listening to it when you have an actual hangover. Honestly, there’s nothing worse. I’ve tried it. It was perfect, in the worst way. The brilliant hidden piece of it is that it’s also about WITHDRAWAL. One of the characters MISSES the other. God, the irony of it being placed behind No Children is fantastic. It’s a scorching song. The humidity and heat of the setting is on full display. This story could not take place anywhere else on earth other than God Awful Florida. It’s comparable to Alpha in Tauris.
PEACOCKS are BRINGERS OF DESTRUCTION. There is an imminent crash coming, and the Alpha Couple are completely OBLIVIOUS TO IT. They REFUSE TO SEE IT. They disassociate, get drunk, and EMBRACE OUTSIDE. They keep giving in. These are alcoholics who refuse to go through any step whatsoever. They either fuck or fight in the middle of their back lawn. Maybe both?
International Small Arms Traffic Blues has to take place at night. The Alpha Couple are facing each other, smoking, probably drunk out of their minds, maybe on their back porch. They are having a literal staring match, all the while arguing about something petty and insignificant, such as who is the real, actual alcoholic of the house. Hell, maybe one of them picks up a guitar and sings this actual song, word to word, to their partner. And fuck, the partner SINGS ALONG. And they drink. They keep drinking. And then,
The worst hangover they’ve ever had pushes them into their bathroom, on the hottest day of summer near the tail end of July, and they’re both convinced they will die, clasped together, sweating the POISON OUT. This isn’t the first time they’ve had to do this together, but the lightbulb never seemed as bright as it does now. They can’t hide from the truth. There is an EXPLOSION coming. They will die in the flames, together, if they don’t stop. What a sweet song. They really do love each other, you know, in their own way. They want to return to how their love felt at first, when the toxicity wasn’t so apparent. They want to return to Kingston, as if those were the good old days. But even when they were GONE IN JAMAICA, their love was FUCKED beyond repair.
I used to read Old College Try as a last-ditch effort to keep the relationship together, and I used to love it for that. I thought it was sweet. Older now, with a touch more awareness, I realize it is an ESCAPE PLAN. One of the two REALIZES, and DESPERATELY TRIES TO GET OUT. But this isn’t PRESENTED as something NEGATIVE. This is GOOD FOR BOTH OF THEM. It is a realization. And this character isn’t trying to leave without a word, like in Alpha Omega. This character wants to LEAVE TOGETHER. This is their saving grace, their redemption. They love themselves enough and their partner enough, in one passing moment, to walk down to the END with them, and go their final separate ways. It is an OLD COLLEGE TRY. It is an ESCAPE PLAN. It rivals Game Shows Touch Our Lives in its comparative beauty. It is the definitive song of Divorce. God, what a song. It is honestly inspiring.
And realistic, because it ALMOST DOESN’T WORK. The poor characters DON’T immediately divorce. They fall back into each other’s arms. Oceanographer’s Choice is a blow-by-blow description of how it unravels, yet again. And we, as an audience, watch helplessly as they fight, fuck, and embrace once again in their mess of a bedroom. On the bright side, their passion for each other has never been HIGHER. I sometimes see theories floating around that one of the Alpha characters kills the other one in this song, but I don’t believe that. That’s too easy of an escape. No,
Alpha Rats Nest is the COMPROMISE: okay, yes fine, maybe they divorce. But they’re not going to divorce in the basic way any other couple will divorce. No, they must fill the skies with smoke and dread. And it’s just as manic as the earlier tracks were. We don’t see if they make good on their promise, of either death or divorce. But we do see flames, and smoke, and we see them, singing.
They accept each other’s ugliness, and the end, and they sing.
I don’t think this is the 15th anniversary of Tallahassee. It’s the anniversary of the Alpha Couple’s DIVORCE.