by Scott McNee
The Mountain Goats are no strangers to the concept album – Tallahassee chronicled the depths of one alcoholic couple’s depravity, while The Sunset Tree detailed singer-songwriter John Darnielle’s abusive childhood. Beat the Champ, however, might be their strangest concept album yet, revolving entirely around Darnielle’s relationship with professional wrestling. It’s a move that invites us to doubt, but for the most part it works.
Beat the Champ makes for Darnielle’s 15th studio album under the Mountain Goats, accompanied by bassist Peter Hughes (a member since 2002) and drummer Jon Wurster (having joined in 2007). It is still Darnielle’s show – his slightly nasal voice confidently shouting lyrics as strong as ever. Notably, he retains his ability to create cheerful, hilarious songs with the most aggressive words possible: ‘I personally will stab you in the eye/ With a foreign object,’ he sings gleefully, as the backing singers echo ‘foreign object!’
Those hoping for a return to the pre-2002 lo-fi sound will be sorely and deservedly disappointed. The full band dominates and varies the album, from the aforementioned swing-influenced ‘Foreign Object’ to the brilliant first single, the boasting theme tune ‘The Legend of Chavo Guerrero’. Perhaps the only exception is ‘Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan’, a spoken word number with minimal, yet frightening musical interjections.
When it comes to autobiography, Darnielle generally weaves his life through the narrative thread of each song, sometimes more explicitly than others – ‘Animal Mask’ ties his experiences becoming a father with that of a masked wrestler at the bottom of a pile-on. At times it can be jarring – in ‘The Legend of Chavo Guerrero’ Darnielle’s abusive step-father suddenly looms over one verse and likely leaves new listeners scratching their heads.
Songs like ‘Choked Out’ and ‘Werewolf Gimmick’ (and the omnipresent ‘Chavo’) edge towards full-blown rock, with all the necessary aggression implied, but overall Beat the Champ is as contemplative as the previous album, Transcendental Youth. It’s not the pure camp of the wrestling stadium that these characters inhabit. Rather, the ring is a demanding, exhausting and occasionally exciting place of work, where the performers emerge into blinding light after lurking in dark tour buses and dank locker rooms. It’s a hard sell, but Darnielle’s lyrics (‘Drift down into the new dark light/ Without any reservations/ You found my breaking point’) evoke as much sympathy for a wrestler contemplating playing the villain next time as Tallahassee did for a disintegrating relationship.
It’s not perfect, and the album struggles briefly in its second half. It’s still the Mountain Goats, however, and you’ll remember it.var d=document;var s=d.createElement(‘script’);