I’m callin’ you out, Darnielle! You and me!
In case you couldn’t tell from the cover art and lead singer/songwriter John Darnielle’s track record of stretching his sparse songcraft over grand lyrical concepts, Beat The Champ is an album about the sport and spectacle of professional wrestling. Despite the surprisingly visceral imagery used to depict the clashes of various costumed titans, The Mountain Goats’ latest record is a far more thematically lighthearted and idealistic affair than some of the group’s previous outings. Take, for example, the chronicle of underage drug abuse that is We Shall All Be Healed, or 2002’s Tallahassee, the failing marriage-inspired rock opera during which The Mountain Goats’ percussive solo acoustic guitar set-up metamorphosed into jangly, full-bodied power-pop. And while Darnielle’s been at the big band game for more than ten years now, he’s made the crucial decision to trade in the banjo for a grand piano to sing out these ringside ballads.
The album’s lead single, “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” depicts its real-life protagonist leaping from the top rope to vanquish his enemies, a steadfast defender of the downtrodden working class that packs sports stadiums to see his violent performance. “I need justice in my life,” declares Darnielle, speaking as both himself and an anonymous representation of his childhood hero’s fan base. “Southwestern Territory” gets lush quick; a woodwind section creeps in to back a grand piano, creating a “Seen the Lights Go Out on Broadway” -style defeatist ballad in which “All the cheap seats go insane.” It’s unusually orchestrated even for The Mountain Goats’ second phase, forgoing what might have been a climactic finale to fizzle out with soft jazz drums. Later tracks “Luna” and “Fire Editorial” both trade the sparse, rustic aesthetic for a lush, metropolitan atmosphere driven by grand pianos and stand-up bass lines.
The Goats appear to half-way imbibe the mariachi aesthetic that comes part and parcel with the subject matter of Mexican luchadores in “Foreign Object.” The thick low end of the baritone saxophone is warm and inviting enough to distract you from the horrifically violent lyrics (getting blood on the front row because “I personally will stab you in the eye with a foreign object”). Meanwhile, “Animal Mask” strays back into familiar folk territory with some pedal steel adornments and organ bleats dotting the pasture of acoustic guitar. Pretty pastoral for a song about an “eighteen man steel cage free-for-all.” “Stabbed to Death in San Juan” establishes a fittingly ominous spaghetti western tone from the beginning, its screeching string section and flamenco guitar emulating any number of flicks scored by Ennio Morricone.
“Heel Turn 2” could have easily been the heartfelt mid-placed acoustic ballad Mountain Goats album centerpiece du jour, but refreshingly decides to hitch a ride on the locomotive of a rhythm section just as the rattling snare drum threatens to speed on by. Darnielle’s ability to slip in and out of the skins (or, in this case, themed wrestling masks) of such a diverse swath of characters shines brighter than ever when he sings “Drive the wedge / Burn the bridge / I don’t wanna die in here.” “Werewolf Gimmick” has an almost Iron Maiden-style gallop with its thundering drums and overproduced chorus: “Bring your heroes to the wolf den and watch them all crushed.”
It’s not pretty like The Sunset Tree or quite as textually and lyrically aggressive as The Mountain Goats’ early work, but Beat The Champ does exactly what it sets out to do. The one-step-below-grand arrangements fit the actually grand themes of performance, ego death and posthumous immortalization through art with which the band chose to grapple, and Darnielle’s trademark character creation is clearly at little risk of fading with time. Before the group Beat The Champ, Darnielle wrote that “I’ve never really been into wrestling,” then, as if turning toward the action-hungry audience of a packed stadium to address his throngs of screaming fans, asks us, “But did I steer you wrong with the Bible album, even though you may not have been super-into the Bible?”
Thunderous applause. The crowd goes wild.