On Tallahassee, the Mountain Goats' 4AD debut, John Darnielle strips his music of the tape hiss that surrounded his previous work like a security blanket made of static, opting for a clean sound that emphasizes the album's sometimes stinging, sometimes sublimely beautiful words and melodies -- call it spite and polish. Though the lo-fi soulfulness that gave his songs an extra, homemade charm before is missed, it wouldn't have fit the ambitious tale he sets out to tell here: the album revolves around a troubled husband and wife who move to Tallahassee to run away from themselves and, ultimately, drink themselves to death. Darnielle has written about this couple before, but Tallahassee takes their relationship -- and his songwriting -- to a new level of vulnerability and intensity. Even among albums chronicling difficult and dying relationships, such as Blood on the Tracks, Shoot Out the Lights, and, more recently, Sea Change, Tallahassee takes a unique approach. Far from being morose or wallowing in sorrow, the album celebrates both the peaks and the valleys of a turbulent relationship; it's less like an autopsy of a love affair than an affectionate, occasionally drunken and rowdy, wake for it. Being such a conceptual album, the lyrics carry much of Tallahassee's weight. Darnielle is up to the challenge, crafting lines that range from the title track's eloquently simple "What did I come down here for? You" to "No Children"'s wickedly funny "I hope that our few remaining friends give up on trying to save us/I hope we come up with a fail-safe plot to piss off the dumb few who forgave us." Lyrics like "We're throwing off sparks/What will I do when I don't have you/To hold onto in the dark?" from "Oceanographer's Choice" convey deeper and more ambivalent emotions altogether; the richness of detail in Darnielle's lyrics makes you wish you could read Tallahassee as well as listen to it -- it's like the Great American Novel condensed into an album (and the prologue that comes with the album gives a tantalizing glimpse of what this story could be in book form). The album is literary as well as literate; songs like the aforementioned "No Children," which appropriately enough sounds like a cross between a sea shanty and a drinking song, conjure up visions of F. Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald crashing a party hosted by Tennessee Williams. Though Darnielle's lyrics are what make Tallahassee so compelling, the album is also musically impressive, ranging from prickly, dysfunctional love songs like "Southwood Plantation Road" and "International Small Arms Traffic Blues" -- a deceptively pretty song that likens the couple's love to global conflicts and covert arms dealing -- to gentle lulls like "Peacocks" to the cathartic "See America Right." Each of the album's songs, in their own way, convey a rare and honest blend of love and frustration that isn't heard nearly enough in any kind of music. "Idylls of the King," which sounds a bit like an indie rock response to "Aguas del Marco," celebrates the wife's eyes as "Twin volcanos/Bad ideas dancing around in there," while the oddly sprightly finale "Alpha Rat's Nest" raises more questions than it answers: what relationship is truly "bad" if both parties go in with their eyes open? Throughout it all, Darnielle's folky twang gives an added authenticity and urgency to his tales of war, peace, love, and hate all living underneath the same roof. Ultimately, Tallahassee is about the staying power, for better or worse, of his couple's love; likewise, the album itself has plenty of staying power, only getting better and growing richer with each listen.
AllMusic Review by Heather Phares