Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle has always written about brutal athleticism and athletic brutalities in his songs, including in the ring—as on See Babylon Springs’ “Ox Baker Triumphant” and his unreleased paean to boxer Pinklon Thomas, “Pinklon.” He’s written about the physical competition of desperate men in the same way that he’s written about the Bible or mutually assured destruction. So Beat the Champ is no more a departure than 2009’s The Life of the World to Come, with the grand guignol of professional and amateur wrestling taking the place of the grand guignol of the Christian text, but, like The Life of the World to Come, it ends up feeling constrained by its adherence to that central conceit.
The album leads off with the inert “Southwestern Territory,” which should be thrown out of the ring for illegal use of oboes, and follows it up with the sloppy “Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” an entreating but overdone return to Sunset Tree-era masked autobio, before kicking into high gear on the beautifully warped “Foreign Object,” which may well house the album’s thesis: “If you can’t beat them, make them bleed like pigs.” The characters in these songs—and they are characters, even the ones based on the legends of wrestling’s past—are beaten down, but they go to those beatings willingly. Sometimes getting hurt is your only option, if it means you get paid. Wrestling is all theatricality and creative anger, something it shares with many of John Darnielle’s songs, and, indeed, it’s hard to find a more purely Mountain Goats lyric than those in the propulsive “Werewolf Gimmick:” “Blood pooling on the canvas as the atmosphere gets hushed/Bring your heroes to the wolf den, watch them all get crushed/Get told to ‘maybe dial it back,’ backstage later on/Everyone still in this building right now—dead before the dawn.” All of John Darnielle’s obsessions—monsters, violence, the sublime and sublimated flesh, the iconography of folklore and pop culture—are here, but they’re familiar and staged as late-stage American wrestling. Anyone who has written as many songs as John Darnielle will, given, start repeating themselves, but there are few new permutations on Beat the Champ, and it sticks to the same formula he’s developed since he entered his full-band period: piano ballad (“Southwest Territory”/ “Tallahassee”/), jangly speed-punk song (“Real Estate Sign”/“Choked Out”/“Psalms 40:2”), singalong heart-throated anthem (“This Year”/ “Sax Rohmer #1”/“Legend of Chavo Guerrero”), etc. It’s not rote—at least not yet—but it’s dull, paradoxically less interesting and diverse than when he was recording by himself. You don’t have to be longing for the tape-hiss era or deafened by nostalgia to wish for more variety in Darnielle’s recent records, which tend to walk the liminal line between “trophic” and “obsessive.” That said, if you’re new to the band, it’s an excellent introductory record. Talking to Mountain Goats fans, you start to quickly pick up on the fact that, generally speaking, your favorite record is the one to which you listened first, and you could do worse than Beat the Champ.
The songwriting, too, is slacker than average on Beat the Champ—Darnielle engages in beginning-songwriters tactics like rhyming “told” with “old” or “fire” with “choir,” which is strange, coming from a man who used to deal in humid similes like “my love is like a cyclone in a swamp and the weather’s getting warmer.” When Darnielle runs hot, though, he burns—as in “Ballad of Bull Ramos,” a sweeping song about aging and myth-making that showcases Peter Hughe’s bass and the punchy simplicity of Darnielle’s observational songwriting: “And the doctor recognizes me/As the operating theater grows dim/‘Aren’t you that old wrestler with the bullwhip?’/‘Yes sir. That’s me. I’m him.’” It’s a simple moment of pride in a song about the indignities of age and disease, and it’s notable that the speaker, a 300-pound heel who died ten years ago, doesn’t take pride in self, but in his gimmick, in his role. Beat the Champ comes back to that lesson over the course of the record: sometimes it’s better to face the world through a role—even one that makes you a villain or a heel. The audience may rejoice in your defeat, but you’ll be remembered, at the very least. Darnielle is at his best when the persistent imagery is given room to breathe, as in the recurring monster imagery in Heretic Pride or the titular setting of All Hail West Texas, whereas Beat the Champ feels restrictive. When he hits the beats of the clumsy “Unmasked!,” it’s an example of Darnielle overplaying his hand, forcing a metaphor out of a maladroit image, not helped by the fact that the whispery vocals do Darnielle’s stentorian whine no favors, ending up sounding like the weakest track in Elliott Smith’s catalog. There’s so much to unpack in Beat the Champ—and it’s clearly Darnielle’s most personal record in years, only masked behind the wrestling metamotif like a luchador—that it’s worth studying, but “studying” isn’t an aesthetic activity, beyond what a deeper read of the text can add to the listener’s enjoyment. Regardless, there’s a great deal to take away from Darnielle’s battle royale, populated as it is with mythic figures and outsized feuds. Like in wrestling, it doesn’t really matter if the storyline doesn’t make sense in the car ride home; it doesn’t matter whether it’s stage blood or real claret: someone is in the spotlight and bleeding, and secretly glad to be there, and you’re surprised somehow to find yourself on your feet and roaring with the crowd.
Tracks to watch: “Animal Mask,” “Foreign Object,” “Heel Turn 2,” “Werewolf Gimmick,” “Ballad of Bull Ramos”
Tracks to skip: “Fire Editorial,” “Luna,” “Hair Match,” “Unmasked!”
Setting: Drink too much wine, then listen to the entire album. One of ‘em’ll do something to you.