Southern Gothic as a literary genre may appear to have long since faded into the annals of American history, but its spirit lives on – and remains ever relevant – in this seminal album from The Mountain Goats.
“Window facing an ill-kept front yard, plums on the tree heavy with nectar“. So begins the first title track of the Mountain Goats 2002 album Tallahassee, bringing the listener into a run-down neighbourhood in the hot, swampy American south. As the album unfolds, the lyrics reveal details of the setting: light spring rain. Withering flowers. Crows, cicadas, locusts; “this place with its old plantations”. These images are woven throughout the record’s fourteen songs and forty-five minutes, creating a distinct and inescapable atmosphere for the music and its story to occupy.
[The lovers] live and breathe in these songs, drinking and fighting and screaming and, most of all, loving each other so much they don’t know what to do about it.
It’s hard to pin singer-songwriter John Darnielle and his band, The Mountain Goats, down into one genre. In the twenty-six years since his first cassette release in 1991, Darnielle has written somewhere in the realm of 1000 songs, making the move from lo-fi to hi-fi recording, from solo work to leading a band, from acoustic guitars and Casio keyboards to trumpets, saxophones, and the French horn. Over the past two and a half decades, there is one constant: Darnielle knows how to tell a story. His lyrics are like poetry, whether their stories be personal or fiction or both, hateful or loving, sombre or jubilant. He is known for his ambitious concept albums, and perhaps the most renowned example of this Tallahassee.
The album tracks Darnielle’s fictional, unnamed, and un-gendered couple who he calls “the Alpha Couple” as they elope, move to a decrepit old house in Tallahassee, Florida, and begin to hate themselves and each other. The Alpha Couple were a staple in Darnielle’s music since the beginning, and this 2002 album acted as a send-off to the codependent yet dysfunctional lovers. They live and breathe in these songs, drinking and fighting and screaming and, most of all, loving each other so much they don’t know what to do about it.
perfect Southern gothic characters – codependent, isolated from the outside world, gradually spiralling into dysfunction
On the other side of the coin, Southern Gothic was a genre that emerged in 20th century American literature, inspired by the gothic writings of those like Edgar Allan Poe. Writers like William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor took the old conventions of gothic literature and imbued it with black humour, unstable and quintessentially Southern characters, and the settings, social orders, and decay of the American South.
Darnielle has expressed a fascination with and attachment to the history and culture of the American South, and this interest shines through his music. The Alpha Couple are perfect Southern gothic characters – codependent, isolated from the outside world, gradually spiralling into dysfunction with the help of poverty and alcoholism. Tallahassee is thick with the tropes of the genre. The liner notes set the stage – “It was summer. It’s always summer with us. In our lives together, which are sweet in the way of rotting things, it is somehow permanently summer”.
The notes then go on to describe the house they have bought, its peeling paint, its cellar, the garden out back. The house is a character in this album just as much as the couple are; a living breathing thing, as is common in Southern Gothic. The decay of the house parallels the decay of the couples’ lives and relationship with each other. In ‘The House That Dripped Blood’, Darnielle lays bare the “rotting wooden stairs”, the “wine dark honeyed center” of the house, the cellar door that is “an open throat”. It’s easy to imagine “this house like a Louisiana graveyard” as the entire world, isolating and suffocating to this couple – to imagine them living out the time allotted to them “lying on the tile floor / trying to keep cool / restless all night”, looking out from the decrepit porch, out at “this place / with its old plantations”. On “Southwood Plantation Road”, “the dead will walk again” and “mingle with unsuspecting Christian men”. The history and religious and social conventions of the South are referenced here, but in Southern Gothic style, through the image of some supernatural occurrence.
Nothing in this story is free from rot
The sprawling, stifling hot, brutal beauty of the South is palpable in this album, as are the psyches of the couple. ‘Game Shows Touch Our Lives’ demonstrates their alcoholism and inertia, watching reality television “on the couch in the living room all day long” with “a drink of the lovely little thing / on which our survival depends” – an allusion to the mild alcoholism that dysfunctional couples tend to sink into in the West. As their love and the house around them crumbles, the couple are ready to ignore the “house sinking into disrepair” in favour of “this showroom filled with fabulous prizes”. They find any distraction from the inescapable fate they have created for themselves.
On ‘No Children’, halfway through the album, the couple reveal the caustic and volatile thing that their love has become: “I am drowning / there is no sign of land / you are coming down with me / hand in unlovable hand”. In the next song, one half of the Alpha couple is “getting out of jail / heading to the Greyhound” with a case of vodka, determined to get back to their lover, to make his love known. But, they say to their partner, “my love is like a dark cloud full of rain / that’s always right there up above you”. Nothing in this story is free from rot.
Can Southern Gothic exist in a time of air-conditioning, Jeopardy, and Greyhound buses?
A Southern Gothic short story might look like this: There is a crumbling house, right on the edge of town. The porch overlooks dead grass and unmaintained road, and when the sun sets it seems to light the whole scene on fire. The air hums with the buzzing of cicadas, and inside the house, the odour of alcohol and dust is thick on the air. In this house lives a couple on an irreversible track of mutually assured destruction, their love impossible to separate from their bitter hatred for each other.
Though the album draws to a close, there is no end in sight for the couple. We can guess that, for better or for worse, they are stuck with each other indefinitely. But there are moments of- perhaps bitter, perhaps misguided- tenderness that break through the madness. One promises the other, “I will walk / down to the end with you / if you will come all the way down with me”. The sincerity in this statement is unshakeable.
Though Darnielle does not explicitly chart their lives any more (for the time being), the Alpha Couple live on, in all their desperate, debased glory. Can Southern Gothic exist in a time of air-conditioning, Jeopardy, and Greyhound buses? The Alpha Couple prove, without room for doubt, that it can.
Image: Bandcamp/The Mountain Goats