The Mountain Goats are somewhat of an anomaly.
They’ve been around for a little under 25 years and have released more songs whose titles follow the format of ‘Going To [Insert place here]’ than, I think I can safely assume, any other band (there are more than 40). Their 15 studios albums have touched on themes from biblical verses to making death metal to the more classic ideas of love, loss, depression and downfalls. Their following of fans is cult-like, fiercely dedicated and passionate, to the point where a petition was started a few years back to name man-behind-the-music John Darnielle a US Poet Laureate (full disclosure – I signed it). Those who are in the club await Darnielle’s next move with bated breath, and he always delivers. Beat The Champ is no exception.
The album sees The Mountain Goats (tMG, as they’re affectionately dubbed) diving into their archives for the sounds that have worked for them so well in the past, which are then fused with jazz, western and mariachi influences. There is much bucking of the tried and true traditional song format – instrumentation sets the mood here, providing a painstakingly curated backdrop for John Darnielle’s soliloquy. He paints a vivid, colourful, lively, sometimes horrifying, sometimes beautiful but always enthralling picture of the world of pro wrestling, which is a sentence I never ever thought I would write. Beat The Champ is every bit as varied and theatrical as a Broadway musical – and I mean that in the nicest way possible.
Southwestern Territory is a slow, oboe-tinged, somewhat bizarre opener for an album that spans over so much territory (spaghetti western on Werewolf Gimmick all the way to a convincing Elliot Smith impression on Unmasked!). That said, it’s an appropriate mood-setter, bleak and unapologetically human, thrusting flaws and errors into the spotlight without remorse. The track is subdued, calling to mind older tracks like Ezekeiel 7 and the Permananent Efficacy of Grace. There’s no shortage of that trademark Darnielle lyrical mix of nostalgia and fatalism, paired with gentle swirling instrumentation. Here, we find a kind of calm beauty in violence – “Nearly drive Danny’s nose back into his brain/All the cheap seats go insane”.
Lead single, The Legend of Chavo Guerrero, is much more in the vein of seminal tMG album The Sunset Tree – it, along with Foreign Object, certainly seems more radio-friendly than many of the other songs Beat The Champ houses. There’s almost a Saints-like feel to the playful darkness in Chavo: you want to turn up the volume and grin along, but if you’re paying attention then you also feel notably uncomfortable in your celebration. Truth be told, that statement probably stands as relevant throughout the album. Foreign Object is by far the most fun, muddy and groovy with its glaring dichotomy between the upbeat ska brass and “ba-da-das” and menacing lyrics, which are essentially a drawn-out death threat. It’s so obvious a juxtaposition that it feels like a bit of a parody of itself, something Darnielle is no stranger to utilising amongst his vast array of other songwriting tools.
There’s a return to tMG’s classic lo-fi, fuzzy, recorded using piece of sh*t equipment stylescape in the aggressive Choked Out. It burns brightly and fiercely and quickly, charging forward with punkish drums, the shortest song on the album at 1:43. It’s worth noting that Darnielle made the choice to follow this with Heel Turn 2, which clocks in at just under six minutes, making it the longest song. The two are intrinsically linked – Choked is full of anger and bravado (“Everybody’s got their limits/Nobody’s found mine”) and Heel is a hopeless, somewhat bitter cry for help (“You’ve found my breaking point/Congratulations”) that evolves into a prolonged piano intermission that seems to not only reference Ezekiel once again, but actually sample it. There’s always been considerable evidence to link various tMG albums, so this is no surprise.
All things considered, Beat The Champ feels like an alternate-reality telling of The Sunset Tree, which is apt – Darnielle has spoken about how important pro wrestling was to him in dealing with the dark period of his life that Sunset Tree chronicles. As always, there’s the inevitable autobiographical prism that Darnielle is incessantly looking through: “He was my hero back when I was a kid/You let me down, Chavo never once did”. The life that John Darnielle has lived is vastly different to many others’ – but it doesn’t matter. His tendency to personalise, and to instruct his listeners lyrically, makes it very difficult not to react in the visceral and emotional way that he wants us to. At the end of Hair Match, the album’s closer, we’re left with a pervasive sense of listless sadness and resignation to defeat, feeling the shame of the protagonist’s public head-shaving as deeply as if it were our own.