John Darnielle is a nerd. That is to say, he’s a man of deep passion for the things he loves. The Mountain Goats have touched his passions in the past, but never so obviously as on Beat the Champ.
In recent years, Darnielle’s interests have been more and more visible. He’s performed sets of heavy metal covers, he wrote a book with a sci-fi fantasy game as a central element and now he’s written an entire album about professional wrestling.
Beat the Champ is about wrestling before the WWE. It’s about regional heroes and rough-edged spectacle. It’s about “nameless bodies in unremembered rooms.” It’s about John Darnielle’s love for this world as it was.
This isn’t an album that uses wrestling as an entry way into some larger truth. On “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” Darnielle sings “you let me down, Chavo never once did” to his step father, but that’s about as personal as the album gets. Most of the songs are stories that feel like tributes to this world. Many of them are just downright fun, like the sport itself.
It’s easy to hear Darnielle’s enthusiasm throughout the album. Heck, “Choked Out” is a burst of energy at just a minute and 44 seconds. Darnielle is going to have a blast adding it to his live show.
This is no longer Mountain Goats music in which every melancholy young adult is going to see themselves. That will cause some fans to pass over Beat the Champ quickly, but no longer being a mirror for the young and miserable has freed the music.
This is The Mountain Goats at their most musically diverse. “Southwest Territory” flutters on top of clarinets. “Fire Editorial” plays with irregular time signatures and highlights the dexterity of John Wurster on drums. If you walked into a jazz club and hear The Mountain Goats playing these songs, it would feel perfectly in place.
It’s not just jazz elements. Darnielle speak-sings on “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan” and invokes creepy string arrangements straight out of a horror film. “Werewolf Gimmick” brings Darnielle’s love of metal to life in the form of relentless bass drum.
Local fans will take pleasure in knowing that Phil (organ, backing vocals) and Brad Cook (backing vocals) helped with the album along with Nathan Golub (Wood Ear), the best steel guitar player in town, who adds a touch of country to “Animal Mask.”
Beat the Champ isn’t likely to be the album that people shout requests from at Mountain Goats shows. These aren’t the songs audiences will shout at the top of their lungs; but, if you’re going to pick a Mountain Goats album to sit and listen to just to appreciate the music and the completeness of vision, Beat The Champ might be the best choice.
Beat the Champ is out today on Merge Records. The Mountain Goats will play a sold out show at the Cat’s Cradle tonight, April 7.