The Mountain Goats’ album Tallahassee turns 20 today! David Menconi of Walter Magazine describes the Mountain Goats as a “quirky and highly literature folk-rock group.” Despite having a strong and passionate fan base (that includes me!) and 11 albums that have hit the Billboard charts, the band isn’t really ‘popular,’ and you might have never heard Tallahassee, or any of their other albums (they have recorded 21 studio albums, dating back to 1991). You might have recently encountered the album’s most famous song, “No Children,” however, which inexplicably sparked a huge TikTok dance trend in 2021, surprising even the band’s lead singer and songwriter, John Darnielle. Rebecca Jennings, writing for Vox, explains:
It’s weird that the Mountain Goats are TikTok famous because the Mountain Goats are perhaps the least likely candidates for “viral TikTok sensation” on the planet. The band, which formed 30 years ago (and, for long swaths, consisted of just one member) and originally recorded their music on DIY-style boomboxes, has released an astounding 20 albums. These albums seem relatively unconcerned with breakout singles or hits and more interested in shaping larger complex narratives about topics from Dungeons & Dragons to professional wrestling to child abuse.
Which is to say, it can be a bit daunting for would-be fans to tackle the band’s discography; there is simply so much of it, and so much subtext to sift through. The Mountain Goats getting TikTok famous sort of feels like if Ulysses suddenly became the bestselling book on Amazon.
“No Children” is terrific, of course. It absolutely helped me through an awful breakup years ago. There’s something incredibly cathartic about belting out the chorus along with John–”I HOPE YOU DIE, I HOPE WE BOTH DIE!”–when you’re in a great deal of emotional pain. But the rest of the album is also well worth listening to. It chronicles the dark and destructive breakdown of the “Alpha Couple,” an incredibly dysfunctional married couple on the verge of divorce who are living in a dilapidated house in Tallahassee, Florida, drinking themselves to death.
To mark the 20th anniversary of the album, today on the Mountain Goats’ Facebook page, John Darnielle wrote:
Our album ‘Tallahassee’ came out 20 years ago today.
There’s lots of stories to tell about how this album came to be, but the interval I want to focus on is recording-to-release. Peter had named the producer. I pretty much only listened to metal at that time, with a couple of choice punk & indie exceptions, so I asked him if he knew any names, and he named Tony Doogan. I’d heard B&S and their sound was pretty special even if I generally preferred my fare a little harder so I said, sure, sounds good, and our new label, 4AD, set it up.
I had never spent a full week in studio before. I’m sure I was insufferable the entire time. I was afraid of failure. I know I had a brutal headache the entire time and could not sleep, at all, in the on-premises accommodations. I felt pretty certain that the people who liked what I did would be mad at the studio sheen, and that nobody who wanted better production would be won over by sanding down the abrasive sound of the boombox.
But we made it through tracking & mix, and then we were told that the calendar didn’t look good for a fall release, and after a certain date in November they didn’t wanna release anything in the UK that would have to compete with the big fall releases…so the album stayed in the cans for a year. A year waiting. Wondering. Worrying. We recorded that album in October of 2001. It came out in November of 2002. It wasn’t met with great acclaim. The sticker on the promo compared us to Cake (presumably because of the speak-singing on the lead single), and the leading indie rock website of the time dutifully made that exact comparison in its review.
But we toured until our feet bled, because we thought these were good songs, and, as we played them, they found the people who wanted or needed them. When you make music that’s never going to appeal to the general public, you play the long game. We are immensely grateful to all of you who play the long game with us. Happy birthday to an album that found its people, over time.
Do yourself a favor and go take a listen to Tallahassee, for the first or the thousandth time!
The Mountain Goats’ “Tallahassee” turns 20: