August 22 — “Old College Try” by The Mountain Goats

The Mountain Goats

If you only listen to one song today, make it “Old College Try” by The Mountain Goats (2002, from the album Tallahassee).

To be fair, this song shouldn’t be removed from the album, so I’ll suggest that you listen to the entire album Tallahassee from front to back, in one sitting. I’ll also suggest that you give it your undivided attention.

As part of my continuing series on artists who will be playing at the 2012 Hopscotch Music Festival, today I’m featuring another band who calls Durham, NC their home. Although there is a full band, The Mountain Goats is really the work of one man, lo-fi folk rocker John Darnielle. Since 1994, he’s released 14 albums under the “Mountain Goats” name, plus another on the way this autumn. He’s also released a handful of others under different band names. While there have been a lot of musicians in and out of the band, drummer John Wurster has been on board for a long time. Even if people don’t know his name, he’s indie rock royalty (at least in these parts) because he’s also the drummer in Superchunk.

Tallahassee is the first of The Mountain Goats not to have been recorded on a shitty four-track machine in Darnielle’s bedroom. And it’s much better because of that. It’s also the first album on which there was officially a band behind Darnielle. And the first on 4AD Records. It’s an album that must be listened to in one sitting, because there’s a story to it. It’s the story of a fictional couple who Darnielle calls “The Alpha Couple”. They appeared in a couple of Mountain Goats songs prior to this, but this time, the whole thing is about them. They’re in a terrible marriage, but they try to stick with it. Even though they have an easy way out due the fact that they’re childless, they try their best to make it work. They fight a lot, they drink a lot. They don’t have any money. Their house is in disrepair. Their relationship is in total shambles. They hate each other, but in a weird way, they still love each other and need each other.

The most popular song on the album is “No Children”, which is sort of where things start to really fall apart. I have to reference it here. The male Alpha is beyond the point of having doubts. He knows that it’s a failure. And he knows that she also knows. It has a really jaunty piano line and without paying attention to the lyrics, it seems happy. However, it’s amazingly dark and desperate. Even though “No Children” isn’t the song of the day, it’s a necessary reference point, so here it is:

And the bulk of the lyrics. Again, because they’re a necessary reference point:

I hope the fences we mended
Fall down beneath their own weight
And I hope we hang on past the last exit
I hope it’s already too late

And I hope the junkyard a few blocks from here
Someday burns down
And I hope the rising black smoke carries me far away
And I never come back to this town again in my life

I hope I lie
And tell everyone you were a good wife
And I hope you die
I hope we both die

I hope I lie
And tell everyone you were a good wife
And I hope you die
I hope we both die

I hope I cut myself shaving tomorrow
I hope it bleeds all day long
Our friends say it’s darkest before the sun rises
We’re pretty sure they’re all wrong

I hope it stays dark forever
I hope the worst isn’t over
And I hope you blink before I do
And I hope I never get sober

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

I am drowning
There is no sign of land
You are coming down with me
Hand in unloveable hand

And I hope you die
I hope we both die

It’s just hopeless. The crux of it is that he knows that he’s never going to “find the strength to walk out”. They’re dying together one way or another.
“No Children” is track number five, and some of the imagery in these lyrics will sprout back up later in the album.

The first place that this stuff reappears is in today’s song. He’s making an effort to make it work, and he realized that he still loves her very much, but he also knows that their marriage is going to kill one or both of them. But they’ve both given it that “old college try”.

Anyway, here’s the song:
“Old College Try” by The Mountain Goats

This line is important:

Our love has never had a leg to stand on
But I will walk down to the end with you
If you will come all the way down with me

Even though the imagery is slightly different, it resurfaces the whole thing about if he goes down, she’s going with him. In “No Children”, it’s a threatening “I’ll drag you down with me”, while in this one, he asks her to see this thing to its ending. That ending is coming sooner than later, and it’s coming by his hand.

I want to say I’m sorry for stuff I haven’t done yet
Things will shortly get completely out of hand
I can feel it in the rotten air tonight
In the tips of my fingers
In the skin on my face
In the weak last gasp of the evening’s dying light
In the way those eyes I’ve always loved illuminate this place
Like a trashcan fire in a prison cell
Like the searchlights in the parking lots of hell
I will walk down to the end with you
If you will come all the way down with me

That first bit of that sequence seems innocent when taken out of context, but it’s not innocent. It’s not sweet. It’s horrible. Things will indeed get completely out of hand.

In the penultimate song, “Oceanographer’s Choice”, there’s a big tussle, and in the end, he drowns her in the bathtub. Or tries to. I think so, anyway. That’s a theory that I’ve heard, and I’m buying it.

Would you look at that?
The way the ceiling starts to swerve
What will I do when I don’t have you
When I finally get what I deserve

Then, in the album-closer, “Alpha Rats Nest”, he sets the house on fire.

Ah the fitful sleep and the fire engines
That I dream of when I dream
Some day we’ll both wake up for good
I will try hard not to scream
The evening wind will shake the blinds
You’re stirring from your slumber
We’ve got something hateful on our minds

Oh sing sing sing
For the dying of the day
Sing for the flames that will rip through here
And the smoke that will carry us away

And there’s the reference back to “No Children”, where he talks about smoke from a huge, destructive fire carrying him (them) away. Again, it’s speculation that he actually set the house on fire, rather than simply dreaming about it. Still, though, I’m buying stock in that theory.

That’s the end of the Alpha story. Seven albums later, there haven’t been any Alpha songs. Of course most of the albums since then have been around one theme or another, so the Alphas don’t fit in. And if the prevailing theory is correct, she’s dead anyway. And maybe he is too.

Buy Tallahassee in physical form from the Mountain Goats web store here. It’s a great record.

The Mountain Goats will be playing Friday night of Hopscotch. They have the midnight to 1am slot at Fletcher Opera Theater. Other shows in other venues will be competing for my time, but I’ll try to make it for at least the end of The Mountain Goats set.

About dlee

North Carolina born and bred. I'm a restaurant guy who spends free time listening to music, watching hockey and playing Scrabble. I have a bachelor's degree in political science and I will most likely never put it to use. View all posts by dlee

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