Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Tallahassee Revisited

If you asked me to name the most depressing song I could think of, I know exactly what I'd say. Forget Radiohead, and Leonard Cohen, and so on; the most depressing song I can name is Shop Vac by Jonathan Coulton.

Last of the Country Gentlemen doesn't even come close to Shop Vac in the depressing stakes. Josh T. Pearson sounds pretty miserable on that album, for sure, but where Country Dumb and its cohorts are bursting at the seams with leaky, sobbing emotion, Shop Vac hints at some even more depressing stuff: emptiness, detachment, and a complete lack of caring. Check out these lines:

"If you need me, I'll be downstairs with the shop vac,
You can call but I probably won't hear you,
Because it's loud with the shop vac on,
But you'll be okay, 'cause you'll be upstairs with the TV,
You can cry and I probably won't hear you,
Because it's loud with the shop vac on."

It's subtle, and the song is so upbeat that a cursory listen gives very little indication of what's actually going on. Incidentally, I think a sad set of lyrics becomes a lot more depressing when stuffed into a catchy pop song like Shop Vac - at least you know where you stand with howlin', shiverin' Josh Pearson.

When I branded Tallahassee with my mark of indifference last month, I had very little notion of the plump, juicy concept that was throbbing beneath its skin. As I said towards the end of that blog post:

"I've just taken a peek at Tallahassee's Wikipedia page, and it's apparently a concept album (I did wonder - a lot of these songs are about marital breakdown and falling out of love) so I'm interested to have another listen and see how knowing about the story changes my perception of things."

Any Tallahassites I disappointed with my first impression will be pleased (and perhaps a little smug) to hear that I have indeed had another listen, and quite a few more on top of that. Whether it's because I've learned about the Alpha Couple or simply because I'm a little more familiar with the songs now, Tallahassee has been right at the forefront of my regular rotation recently.

And my favourite thing about it is just how bleak it's turned out to be. Don't get me wrong, none of these tracks are as misleadingly chirpy as Shop Vac, and nobody will ever mistake No Children for a happy song. But as depressing as that song is on its own, things get a whole lot more upsetting when you tie it all together. Remember Alpha Rats Nest, Tallahassee's closing track? I thought it was a bit goofy when first I heard it. Have a listen:

Well, I was doing a bit of research - trying to work out what each song was about, and what it had to do with the central story - and there was one person on SongMeanings who thought that Oceanographer's Choice was about the protagonist drowning his wife, and Alpha Rats Nest was him setting fire to their house with himself and her corpse inside. That's only one interpretation, but pretty much everyone seems to agree that, at the very least, ARN is about the house burning down.

I find Tallahasse depressing (and hence awesome) for the same reason I like Shop Vac. Breaking up would actually be a happy ending for this couple, but that just ain't gonna happen. Instead, they stay together (for increasingly vague reasons) and drink all the alcohol they can get their hands on in a house that, like their marriage, is constantly on the verge of falling apart.

There are still songs that don't seem to have any obvious relation to the overarching plot (See America Right, Peacocks) and, yes, songs that I still don't much like (The House That Dripped Blood, International Small Arms Traffic Blues). But Tallahassee has shot up in my estimation since First Impressions Week; where it struck me as a disappointingly unexplosive listen at first, I now can't get enough of its little miseries. A depressing backstory can do wonders, it seems.

Oh, one last thing. It would be remiss of me to reappraise Tallahassee without mentioning Liam from the 1p Album Club (he did a guest post for me a few weeks back). After I posted my lukewarm first impression, he emailed me his own thoughts on the album, and his words of enthusiasm for it - especially for the lyrics and the story they tell - was a big part of what made me keep listening. Thanks, Liam!

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