At first, it looked like numbers without context. The Spotify rankings of Mountain Goats songs were changing, and John Darnielle didn’t know why. Since the moment that streaming services had made fan-favorite metrics possible to monitor, “This Year,” the anthemic blast of determination from the Mountain Goats’ 2005 album The Sunset Tree, had been most popular song from Darnielle’s band. Over a short period of time, though, another song surged in the rankings, ultimately unseating and then drubbing “This Year.” In the fall of 2021, “No Children,” a splenetic burst of rancor that was 19 years old at the time, had always been a big favorite, a classic singalong at the Mountain Goats shows where they deigned to play it, but that song had suddenly become an out-and-out hit. In a Variety interview last year, Darnielle talked about the fun puzzlement of the phenomenon: “Wow, 137,000 new people listened to ‘No Children’ today.”
If you’re reading this, you probably already know what happened: TikTok came for “No Children.” Last October, a TikTok user with the handle @13leu posted a video of himself inventing a sort of interpretive dance to a particularly incendiary 15-second passage from “No Children.” In a room full of boxes, the guy ducks behind a pile of cardboard, with only the top of his head visible. At the line “I am drowning,” he puts both hands up, making a few flailing and dramatic gestures in time with Darnielle’s words. It cuts off at the line “I hope you die.” @13leu is a white guy with a beard and glasses, and he looks very much like a Mountain Goats fan. (I say this as a white guy with a beard and glasses.) But in that moment of inspiration, @13leu created something that reached far beyond the entrenched Mountain Goats fanbase. Soon enough, tens of millions of people heard those 15 seconds of Mountain Goats music, sometimes in the form of cat-choreography videos.
@13leu alone at 6am #themountaingoats #foodservice #fypシ #art #music #trending #viral ♬ original sound – bleu
The Mountain Goats took advantage of this strange new twist. The band started their own TikTok page, and they posted the “No Children” memes whenever possible. When I saw them last winter, “No Children” had become the Mountain Goats’ live-show closer, and it was preceded by a delighted Darnielle riffing on the delirious strangeness of the “No Children” phenomenon. In that Variety interview, John Darnielle took a decidedly non-snobbish attitude about the whole thing. Darnielle has written and recorded hundreds upon hundreds of songs, but he knew that “No Children” was special and that those 15 seconds of “No Children” were especially special: “You have to admit that they sort of get it. They latched onto a 15 seconds that’s a key moment in both the song and the catalog and sort of identified it as that. It tells you a lot about how good the critical eye of the public can be — that people are good at reading stuff, if [they] get a chance to hear it.”
If you know that quick burst of incandescent rage from “No Children,” then you already know a great deal about the Mountain Goats, even if those few seconds are all you know. In a catalog as long and twisty as the Mountain Goats’, no one song can ever stand in for the whole. But those seconds contain volumes of information. There’s Darnielle’s voice, harsh and reedy and maybe even whiny, operating at full-tilt bray. He sounds deranged and maybe euphoric about his derangement. The music is simple and direct and at least a tiny bit joyous, even as the words are eloquently unspeakable: “I am drowning! There is no sign of land! You are coming down with me! Hand in unlovable hand!” In those few seconds, you can hear a couple coming unglued, getting dizzy at the prospect of annihilating themselves and one another. That’s the point of “No Children,” and that’s the point of Tallahassee, the truly great Mountain Goats album that will celebrate its 20th anniversary on Saturday.
Seen from a certain angle, “No Children” might announce the culmination of a decade-plus of Darnielle’s work. Darnielle started making music as the Mountain Goats in 1991, and even before then, he came up with the idea of the Alpha Couple, an unnamed and ungendered pair of mismatched souls who haunted his work. Before he made music, Darnielle wrote poetry, and the characters of the Alpha Couple were recurring characters in his work. Back when Darnielle was releasing music only on hard-to-find cassettes, singing and playing guitar directly into his Panasonic boombox, the Alpha Couple were present.
As depicted by John Darnielle, the Alpha Couple are two self-destructive people who become a self-destructive unit, a study in codependence. They’re both alcoholics, and they’re both prone to unwise decisions. Together, they make each other worse. Here’s how Darnielle described the Alpha Couple in a 2002 interview: “They do feel a kind of love for each other, sure. But it’s really quite sick and destructive, so I would say on balance that that’s not love. That’s alcohol.” To watch the Alpha Couple’s story play out — and Mountain Goats fans are the type to assemble a rough chronology of these fictional characters’ saga — is to behold an endless shuffle towards inevitable anticlimactic disaster. When you meet these two, you know they’re not heading anyplace good, and they don’t do anything to contradict that impression. You still kind of like them, though. Darnielle once believed that “Alpha Omega,” a song from 1995’s Our Salvation Is In Hand, would be his last document of the Alpha Couple. Fate had other plans.
For their first decade, the Mountain Goats were a cult concern. You might argue that they’re a cult concern now, but cult concerns now are a whole different deal. In the ’90s, when cult concerns expressed themselves via zines and cassette tapes and maybe a few skeletal online newsgroups, cults were the domain of true weirdos. Darnielle was, and is, a true weirdo, and his tribe found him. In cranking out a hurricane of finely observed character portraits on crudely recorded voice and guitar, Darnielle built himself an audience.
Eight months before Tallahassee, the Mountain Goats — really just Darnielle at that point — released the roaring masterpiece All Hail West Texas, the triumphant end of the boombox era. Shortly afterward, Peter Hughes, whose band Nothing Painted Blue came from the same Inland Empire tape-trader scene as Darnielle himself, signed on as the Mountain Goats’ full-time bassist. The plural nature of the Mountain Goats’ band name had long been a sort of in-joke, though another bassist, Rachel Ware, had been involved for a few years. With Hughes on board, though, the Mountain Goats became a band. They also signed with 4AD, an actual record label, and then set about recording Tallahassee in an actual studio. These were departures for the Mountain Goats, and Darnielle was a little uncomfortable with how quickly things were growing.
I have at least one good friend who sees Tallahassee as the beginning of the end — the moment that the Mountain Goats lost the wild charm of the boombox era and became a joyless professional institution. By virtually any standard, though, Tallahassee is still a remarkably spare and word-focused record. Darnielle and Hughes recorded in upstate New York with Delgados/Belle & Sebastian producer Tony Doogan. A few additional musicians, like Flaming Lips member Michael Ivins, occasionally chipped in. Most of the time, though, we only hear a couple of instruments per song, and everything clears out to give Darnielle’s yelp the spotlight. Still, the new setup was an adjustment, and maybe Darnielle wanted to signal that he wasn’t suddenly going to remove all the spikes and brambles from his music. Maybe that’s why he wrote a whole album about the Alpha Couple.
Tallahasee is a full-on concept LP that takes place at a specific point in these fictional characters’ arc. The Alpha Couple started out in California, and they lived in Las Vegas for a while. Now, they’re in the Florida city of the album’s title, wasting drunken days in a dilapidated house that seems ready to collapse at any second. They’re running out the clock, and they know it, but they cling to each other all the harder. They’re in a downward spiral, and Darnielle captures that feeling with vivid force: “I’ve got you/ You’ve got whatever’s left of me to get/ Our conversations are like minefields/ No one’s found a safe way through one yet.”
It’s a depressed and depressing story. The couple stays together through some combination of devotion, inertia, fear, and desperation. They shouldn’t be together, but they’d still be messes if they were apart. Darnielle’s beautiful little turns of phrase make the whole thing sing. “I am not going to lose you/ We are going to stay married/ In this house like a Louisiana graveyard, where nothing stays buried.” “I handed you a drink of the lovely little thing on which our survival depends/ People say friends don’t destroy one another/ What do they know about friends?” “Our love is like the border between Greece and Albania/ Trucks loaded down with weapons/ Crossing over every night/ Moon yellow and bright.” (That last one, hoo baby.) In between all the blow-ups and stresses, we get gorgeous little idylls, and those idylls don’t always need Darnielle going full blood-and-thunder on the lyric sheet. Sometimes, as on the song with the word “Idylls” in the title, he can just repeat the words “all of them, all of them” a few times, and the fondness shines through.
“No Children” arrives at the midpoint of Tallahassee, and it’s the part where everything irreparably blows up. One track later, the narrator is arrested driving drunk with a busted radiator, then gets plastered on vodka again just to board a Greyhound bus. (You ever been drunk on a Greyhound bus? I have. Not recommended.) At this point, it’s clear that nothing good is going to happen: “If we never make it back to California, I want you to know I love ya/ But my love is like a dark cloud full of rain that’s always right there up above ya.” The Alpha Couple tries to make things work a few times, but they’re doomed, and they know they’re doomed.
The Alpha Couple’s story ends with “Alpha Rats Nest,” the last song on Tallahassee. The last we see of them is this line: “Sing for the damage we’ve done and the worse things that we’ll do/ Open your mouth up and sing for me now, and I will sing for you.” For now, that’s the end of the story. The Mountain Goats moved on and expanded. They grew more comfortable in studios, and John Darnielle found ways to write about himself rather than the fictional characters he’d conjured so viscerally. The next two Mountain Goats albums, We Shall All Be Healed and The Sunset Tree, take sharp turns toward autobiography. Both are masterpieces. Tallahassee might be a masterpiece, too, but it’s a different kind of masterpiece. It’s a tragedy, and it’s a goodbye.
When the Alpha Couple reappear in our lives via TikTok meme, that moment of frivolous celebration feels just right — like it’s a viking funeral for these two poor souls. God knows, if the Alpha Couple had access to TikTok, maybe they wouldn’t be drunkenly clinging to each other while watching game shows. Maybe they’d be drunkenly sitting alone, both scrolling through their respective feeds as everything around them crumbles.