"The warning signs have all been bright and garish," Mountain Goats singer John Darnielle recounts over woebegone organ and frayed acoustic guitar in Tallahassee cut "Old College Try". Considering the career Darnielle has carved out as the only steady member of the Mountain Goats, the line may as well describe his songs. "Dance Music"'s chipper guitar ditty barely concealed a tale of domestic violence. In "How to Embrace a Swamp Creature", assured drum pats couple with an identity crisis where the narrator "can't breathe." For all of its stir, 2012's "Harlem Roulette" still dealt with a once-great musician's withering death. When you use the word "garish" to describe the Mountain Goats' discography, it has little to do with color. Within their world of fallen stars, forgotten homes, and short-lived meetings the word is taken in the ugliest context. Songs that don't spit bile outright have it coursing through every inch of their veins.
And while it's worth debating, few songs in the group's fraught catalog deserve the term more than "Old College Try". Appearing on Tallahassee, a Cinéma vérité documentary of the fan-favorite Alpha Couple falling apart at the seams, "Old College Try" signals the final stitches being ripped out. To an optimistic ear though, that's not what's happening at all. Despite the minor organ figure, the pledge "I will walk down to the end with you, if you will come all the way down with me," reads like a vow from the holiest of marriages. A marriage that neither life nor death could ever possibly vanquish. But Darnielle himself is on record as saying in concert, “This is a song about two people who love each other very much, but accept their lot in life to torture each other to death.”
Besides such towering figures like life and death are rarely what sink a marriage. Instead it’s the "small things" we've been told a million times not to sweat. It's having one too many drinks and staying out late one too many nights. It's being caught casting a look in the wrong direction. Something as innocent as an impulse buy can snowball into a discussion on responsibility and budgeting. In some cases, a marriage's death knell is heard by "simply" falling out of love. Liking a person is hard enough, let alone loving them. More than any drink, that's the great obstruction to the Alpha Couple's marital bliss. Cooped up in a decaying house in an alien town, they only have each other to depend on. But they don't like each other anymore and when you feel nothing for another person, what motivates you to help them?
Their great answer to the $64,000 question is to see things out to the bitter end, not out of compassion but ugly competition. Leaving is admitting defeat and both are far too stubborn to say "you win." So they apologize "for stuff I haven't done yet," rather than work towards to avoiding tragedy. "Our love has never had a leg to stand on," the Alpha male recounts at another turn. Imbued with all this foresight, they refuse any sort of crutch. They'd rather languish. Neil Young's notion "it's better to burn out than fade away" is the farthest thing from either of their minds. If you slowly fade away, eventually you'll be forgotten. Time won't remember you or what you've done. And that's all either of them wants, to be forgotten.