Album Review: The Mountain Goats - 'Beat the Champ'

The Mountain Goats use professional wrestling as a lens for human stories questioning legacy, hope, trauma, and the power of fiction and art in their most musical adventurous record yet.

When the Mountain Goats announced that their new album was a loose concept record related to professional wrestling, a number of their fans were immediately alarmed.

After all, hyper-literate indie rock and professional wrestling don't typically mix.

Worse, when they do, there tends to be a unique kind of holier-than-thou condescension and irony involved, coopting real folk and populist traditions just to skewer them for art school crowds.

The Mountain Goats are better than to do something as crass as that, though.

Lyricist, guitarist, pianist, singing, and founding member John Darnielle has sprinkled his albums, and even his debut novel, with references to extreme metal, tabletop gaming, wild fantasy, and all the other things that kids and teens with hard home lives in go-nowhere towns look to in order to find hope.

He's not averse to humor or irony (just check out his excellent Twitter timeline for a clear-enough example that he's no po-faced over-serious modern poet type), but he still holds on to a punk/hardcore-style sense of the power of sincerity.

This sincerity carries over to the songs on this record. The songs drift from personal narratives regarding why one might connect to wrestling, invest in it, look to it for hope, to using wrestling matches and history as metaphors for more complex inner spaces.

It is not that these songs are not about wrestling; they very much are.

It's just that Darnielle takes his subject matter seriously, and takes its ability to craft powerful metaphors and parallels to broader and more complex elements of lived life seriously, and so doesn't feel the need to wink and nudge at the listener.

He doesn't flinch. He takes his source material seriously and he respects it.

He invests in it earnestly, plays to its inherent drama, leans into it and trusts it. That's where the power of these songs come from. That's important, in all art, not just this.

The opening track "Southwest Territory" showcases the increasing jazz and orchestral influences on the Mountain Goats' songwriting. It's a trait that's always been there; they take after the lo-fi tradition of Guided by Voices, evoking lush percussion, strings, pianos and choirs even on their boombox records. It's simply that, since 2002's Tallahassee, they've finally had the means with which to actually fill in those spaces.

Tracks like this show the benefit of that slow development. The usage of dual clarinets, flutes, piano, and very quiet jazz drums played with brushes are tasteful, painting in little gestures.

The shimmering clean vibrato guitar that underlines chords and sits below the wavering clarinets and flutes makes the track feel like its humming.

For a song about full devotion to what would otherwise be a simple and small life, these gentle and tasteful touches enhance the point superbly.

Next comes easily my favorite track on the record, "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero." It's sound is closest to early 90s indie, hitting somewhere close to the sound of Pavement. It mixes jangly clean electric guitar and tightly strummed acoustic guitars with rock drumming. It's an intensely melodic song; that's easily my favorite aspect of it.

The verse and chorus melodies are equally anthemic. The musical continuity comes from the vocal delivery, which rambles and tumbles out of Darnielle's mouth during the verses like he's telling a fevered story that he can't quite wait to finish before exploding into a simple image of a heroic wrestling hurtling himself off of the top rope against the despicable villains of life.

The music bounces like the Violent Femmes during the verses before swelling for the choruses.

A cynic might say it sounds like a pastiches of all the tried-and-true best movies of indie rock of this style; considering the Mountain Goats have been going for 25 years now, it might be best to say its a studied and excellent tune from one of indie rock and folk's best songwriters and lyricists.

"Foreign Objects" is, in my view, the only weak point of the album. It's a folk number using acoustic guitars as a skeleton, letting bass and tenor saxes cover most of the melodic ground.

The lyrics are smart but perhaps at times a little too on-the-nose, feeling a little bit closer to a joke than any of the other songs on the record.

This, paired with the sax-heavy instrumentation, and it makes the song almost but not quite feel like a joke track.

The vocal delivery is what saves it for me. Darnielle retains his curious mixture of vocal influences; slight emo warble, punky throat and growl on occassion, a touch of hardcore and heavy metal in the verve, and the occasional dialing back to folksy vulnerability.

Darnielle's vocal abilities are often overshadowed by his admittedly remarkable lyrics and sophisticated songwriting, which is a shame.

In weaker hands, this song would feel hokey and unbearable, but Darnielle manages through his voice to elevate to merely a weak track among a record of brilliant songs.

"Animal Mask" finds Darnielle noticing a campfire folk melody and lilt to his songwriting and leaning in, letting the bass and drums swing and bringing in some weeping country slide guitar.

Lyrically, "Animal Mask" is a keen example of Darnielle's ability to have simple faith in his subject matter and find redemptive resonance with simple things inside.

In this case, its verses that follow the heroic (almost superheroic) triumph of two young wrestlers, one a brawler and the other a frog-man gimmick, as they battle together in a multi-man match.

The chorus, a simple two line refrain, recontextualizes the simple image of the song: The narrator is looking back near the end of his life on simple, beautiful, heroic images of his youth, things that inspired others and the peers that inspired him.

The pairing with lightly swinging campfire country folk leans in to the image of a grandfatherly figure reminiscing on youth but stays away from cheese.

It's simple faith in its resonance, the dialing back of the drama and focusing instead of little narrative details and a brief chorus to underline, keeps it tight and emotive.

The next track bursts out into folk punk.

"Choked Out" is, on paper, a song about wrestlers taking up a promoters offer to go all-out until one of the fighters passes out for a bigger purse to break between them.

But the combination of the energy here, the shortest track on the record and one of the Mountain Goats' shortest songs in years, plus the lyrical focus makes it clear that this song is perhaps closer to Darnielle reminiscing on his early years as a musician, or perhaps evoking the early, hungrier days of those that are willing to wear themselves to the point of almost burning away in order to make an impact.

The song needs the punk energy his band gives it; the lyrics at the end tell us that the narrator can "see the future, it's a real dark place," and that they only have that one match where they threaten to destroy themselves completely to really make something that matters. Its an image of youthful hunger, the kind that doesn't always go someplace and doesn't always mean something to people but is necessary for the young to be able to look back later in life and know that they at least gave it their best go.

It's potentially but not necessarily nihilistic; furious but not necessarily defeated. And it's a surprising but very satisfying move in a career trajectory that has seen the Mountain Goats dialing back their punkier sonic roots for lusher instrumentation and songs.

"Heel Turn 2" is a narrative piece about complacency and the willingness to destroy everything about your life, even your own reputation, just to get free.

It's a vague thing, certainly, but one that doesn't take much life experience to reach; some people approach it by drug use, alcohol, wild personality changes, moving away, giving in to impulse.

For the narrator of this song, it's a heel turn, the wrestling term for when a good guy (known as a "babyface" or just "face") goes bad (or a "heel," playing off images of resistance to authority and tyranny; staring in its face or laying at its heels).

The first portion of the song is split into two verses: in the first, images of the narrators image as an earnest and reliable do-gooder; in the second, the vast betrayal and hurt of those that believed in him.

The chorus is what clues us in to this transformation: in increasingly pained performances, Darnielle sings "I don't want to die in here." It's not a self-destruction and negative rebirth born out of desire for the thing that emerges from the fire; it's a simple desire to get out of the trap of the life one has before, no matter how good it seems, and especially if that golden life is but a gilded cage.

The second half of the song drifts into a piano solo piece, riffing on the main melodies of the first half. All words and instruments drop away. It is an image of the newly-turned heel alone in contemplation, staring down the decision he made.

It's a bittersweet piano piece. There is no clear message in its timbres whether the wrestler fully regrets or fully embraces their decision.

For every sweet note that feels liberating and accepting there comes a haunting dissonance, some bitterness and vague regret in the face of those let down.

It confronts the question of liberation and the costs of it; it faces the notion of being pushed to the breaking point, knowing that you were pushed there, but still not being able to fully justify actions taken by forced hands.

It's raw, but subdued. It is not that Darnielle could not have underlined these ideas with words. He is, after all, perhaps one of the most gifted living lyricists we have going right now.

It's that he didn't need to. The piano says everything that needs to be said, makes resonant all the emotional notes and complexities within a betrayal of character like this.

It drifts into an instrumental and, minutes later, drifts out completely, like a slow numbing. This is perhaps the greatest song John Darnielle has ever written, and the man has written a lot of incredible songs.

"Fire Editorial" leaps back headlong into jazz mode, bouncing piano chords and riffs and crisp jazz drumming. It's a sign of the deepening skill-set of Darnielle and company, or perhaps a greater foregrounding of a skill always there. The lyrics are solid by the Mountain Goats' standards, but the ear is for once not immediately drawn to deft lyricism but instead to the playing. This is a rare song in the Mountain Goats' body of work, letting the music do the heavy-lifting for once.

If I'm being brief, it's only because it's difficult to put into words the dance-like interplay between Darnielle's stabs at the piano and ringing arpeggios against the crisp ride-and-hi-hat heavy jazz drumming. The vocals act somewhat closer to another rhythmic layer than something meant to convey a story, creating a subtly dense but delightfully playful dance of bright sounds.

One can imagine slight changes, little ironies leading this to be featured in something like Mad Men or The Sims.

But the Mountain Goats take themselves seriously, even at play; this remains a taut and well-played piano jazz number devoid of demeaning ironies, playful without being a joke, unique without being a gimmick.

"Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan" is a more abstract and brooding dramatic piece, fitting since it's based on a true tragic story about... Well, that part's easy to figure out.

It features tense strings and contemporary classical flourishes in place of choruses.

This song feels perhaps like one of the last written for the record; not for any weakness, because as a dramatic mood piece telling the story of a wrestler being murderer in the days before kayfabe was broken and the narrative aspect of wrestling was revealed it succeeds wonderfully, but because of an ethereal moodiness to it that seems built to fill in potential gaps in the album's sonic palette.

There is triumph and heartbreak and a kind of gentle tragedy elsewhere on the record, but only here is an unvarnished and totally true story of murder told. It adds an unrepentant, irreconcilable darkness that offers narrative complexity to the arc of the record.

It's a sign of the power of sequencing; following a narrative piano solo outro with bouncy piano jazz piece then to a brooding dramatic piece, a steady mid-album stretch of work that lets the music do most of the talking.

The few lines that swim to the surface in this song are howled, images of pain and confusion, a man on the verge of death following a locker room stabbing.

What follows is easily the most fun song on the entire record. "Werewolf Gimmick" is a song told entirely from the perspective of a wrestler who's given themselves entirely to their angle as a savage wolfman.

It's hard not to notice a death metal lyrical influence and a touch of Dio in the choice of vocal melodies.

This is Darnielle at perhaps his most metal; even to the uninitiated to the vast world of heavy metal, the influence of the genre is palpable here.

Where the previous song was an abstract true story, this is an ornate and over-dramatic bit of lyrical work, fitting when you consider the song is about someone giving themselves over to something as absurd as pretending to be a professional wrestler that is also a flesh-hungry werewolf.

However, Darnielle doesn't flinch or wink, and that's what makes the song work. It's not quite a joke; we aren't led to laugh at the narrator. Instead, it's a joyful thing, even in its violence, due to the power of sincere absurdity. It pairs against "Chavo Guerrero" as a fairly direct portrait of the power of wrestling iconography and theatrical storytelling, something not that far from musical symbolism.

It functions as a matter of faith and belief. So the wolfman believes, so to do we believe; as Darnielle howls, we are drawn to howl.

It's easy to imagine this lighting up a room on tour, igniting a raucous sing-along. It's wonderful campy fun.

"Luna" begins the mellower final third of the record. Musically, this song is closer to the introspective nocturnal music of their previous record, Transcendental Youth, particularly that album's track "White Cedar." We find the band in full ballad mode, slow ringing piano and gentle, exhausted vocals.

But where "White Cedar" leaned on its ballad nature, "Luna" furthers the symphonic and jazz elements of this records sonic palette, getting a sycopated jazzy shuffle from the drums, some symphonic lushness from strings, and a little country folk from the spare electric guitar playing.

It is a microcosm of the musical ideas of the record, if not the concept.

Lyrically, this dives furthest from explicit ties to wrestling, touching instead the deeper core of questions relating to mortality, youth, age, effort, purpose, failure, regret... It would not be terribly out of place on their last record even lyrically, and sets up a logical bridge between the two albums.

Perhaps it was the first written for this record, beginning the slow process of opening up a bundle of related songs that would coalesce into another LP. I find myself returning to this one again and again, often starting the album on this track, due to the strength of the melodies and playing shown here.

The easy read of the gentle acoustic folk number "Unmasked!" is that it is about two masked wrestlers facing each other in the ring preparing to battle one another, risking demasking, retirement, and ultimate ignominy in defeat. Masked wrestlers have a tradition of identifying as their characters; there are no wrestlers who take character and theater more seriously.

The loss of one's mask, especially publicly, is the ultimate sign of defeat and one that no masked wrestler can ever record from.

But little touches reveal that perhaps this is not a song about two wrestlers, or even two separate people, but one person facing themselves truly in the quiet contemplation of the night.

Facing not only trauma but what trauma was let inside and exists behind the mask; a inward paradox, a self-directed tension.

The metaphor is an obvious one, but it doesn't belabor itself or over-extend itself. It is less concerned with what is found under the mask than with the symbolic act of unmasking, of recognizing and eliminating theater and pretense to find the ghost inside of the machine.

Darnielle refers to the mask as a cast that is sawn off by their opponent, a necessary cathartic process of guilt and humiliation that can be desired but not triggered by the self, a revealing that leads to reconciliation and peace that requires someone to slice through and eliminate the illusion.

It rides its tension to the end of the song, remaining gentle and restrained, both musically and vocally, lyrics like slow knives.

"The Ballad of Bull Ramos" returns to the bouncy feel of the earlier portion of the record, leaning close to the fireside country folk of "Animal Mask" but with a bit more energy. Like other tracks, this one follows a narrative of death and aging. It shares the triumphant theme of the opening track and "Animal Mask," facing death and increasing tragedy bravely, leaning back on the virtues and triumphs of life and youth, not to mention the theme of the sheer joy of still being alive that Darnielle explored in both "Spent Gladiator" tracks across their last record.

The narrative here is based on the real life of the wrestler Bull Ramos, a man who wrestled with a bullwhip and eventually succumbed slowly to diabetes, which led to his death about ten years ago.

Darnielle refuses, both musically and lyrically, to let the song become dour, even as it reaches the death of the narrator; the guitars and bass and drums reach their climax and the song ends with a simple descending pedal guitar slide, the spirit escaping the body but not with a moment's lost triumph.

It's a surprisingly optimistic song given the subject matter, and a buffet to the spirit given the emotional difficulties of the preceding tracks.

The album ends in a humiliation. The narrative of "Unmasked!" is reversed in "Hair Match," seeing the main character losing a match unexpectedly and, by virtue of the hair match stipulation, has their head buzzed by their opponent. It is a story of sudden and unexpected defeat and public humiliation played against gentle plucked acoustic guitar buffeted by the occasional flutter of flutes.

The tenor of the song is resigned, weary from long effort. One can imagine a world in which this song precedes "Bull Ramos," letting the triumphant tale of bravely facing death following a fully-lived life as the album closer; instead, we get a sour note, smuggled cameras filming the nominally at least semi-private humiliation.

Darnielle does not let us escape in full-triumph. We must also remember our pain.

The album arcs and tumbles through nostalgia, grief, triumph, and pain. It questions legacy, both as something that we accrete but also something we create.

It manages to bounce between multiple angles on the question of investment in fiction and drama as methods of coping and methods of creation, indirectly interrogating the process of art-making both for artist and audience, without it feeling overly ambitious in the number of perspectives and ultimately answerless contradictions it unearths.

This is because Darnielle over his time as a writer and musician has learned the lesson that art works better as evocation and mapping, almost more a kind of emotional journalism, than as something that seeks to generate cohesive answers.

Each of the portraits feels true, and the way they come at odds with each other feel more like unearthed complications than contradictions or weaknesses. The album feels robust rather than scattershot, filled-in and filled-out rather than a mess.

It's an occasionally imperfect record that is also the most musically ambitious the Mountain Goats has ever been and, in my opinion, ranks up there with their other conceptual works like All Hail West Texas and The Life of the World to Come as one of their absolute best.

A strong contender for album of the year.

Image taken from Merge Records' shop page.