I love the Alpha Couple, I love them like they were my alcoholic best friends, two people that I’ve only ever known as a couple, who like me enough to let me drink their booze and crash on their couch when I’m visiting. I always make a point to see them when I’m in town but the idea of sticking around for more than one night makes me nervous. If I was smarter, I might have decided to spend a whole month just writing about the Alpha Couple. It would be a more cohesive project and it would be a lot easier to track any personal development along the way, but hey, there’s no use thinking about what could have been, right? It’s not like I’m operating under a totally arbitrary set of parameters that I could change any time.
I’m not alone in my love for the Alpha Couple. Even people who don’t know them by their proper name love them. If you know about the Mountain Goats, you either know “This Year” or you know “No Children,” and even if you don’t love the Mountain Goats1, you probably love “No Children,” the best darkly humorous sing-along about a hateful alcoholic couple ever recorded. And while “No Children” is arguable the climax of their story2, Darnielle tracked their downward spiral over the course of nearly a dozen songs spread out over several releases before he settled down and devoted an entire album to them on Tallahassee.
“Alpha Double Negative: Going To Catalina” takes place when the doomed lovers are still living in California. Before they try to outrun all their troubles by moving across the country, they warm up by trying to outrun all their troubles on a vacation to Catalina Island. It’s funny that this is the one place that the ‘Alpha’ series and the ‘Going to…’ series overlap, considering that the Alpha Couple live their entire lives under the belief that they can move far enough away to escape who they are, but I guess this was the first time they really gave it the old college try3. Physically speaking, that is; they’ve presumably been trying to drink themselves free of themselves for years now.
Part of me just loves the Alpha Couple for the sheer fact of their existence: a couple of recurring characters with a (somewhat) clear plot-line running through a decade’s worth of output, without all the tedious duties of continuity that plague other forms of storytelling. For the most part, each song in the “Alpha” series examines a single moment or scene from the couple’s lives—usually through an accumulation of details about their drinking habit and whatever shoddy hotel their holed up in at that point—and in doing so paints a more complete picture of their relationship than traditional narrative could. I suppose those are the benefits of a background in poetry4.
They’re perfect vehicles for Darnielle’s brand of songwriting, which so often centers on emotionally extravagant characters living at the edges of society. These two are a couple of bottom-feeders who spend their days in a perpetually heightened state of intra- and inter-personal turbulence. “Double Negative” is a quieter moment in the Grand Guignol of their relationship, but it’s still recognizably the same two characters from “No Children.”
1. And, like, what’s your deal, anyway?
2. I once heard JD describe it as “the moment when all the romance finally goes out of the alcoholic marriage.”
4. It’s times like this I wonder if I have devoted my life to the wrong discipline.