Music Reviews
Beat The Champ

The Mountain Goats Beat The Champ

(Merge) Rating - 7/10

A bird piercing the sky of Seoul. "Onions growing in the ground." A death metal band that never made it out of the garage. If there's one thing John Darnielle has proven through his career with (or as) the Mountain Goats, it's his ability to turn damn near anything into a source of deeply affecting emotion or insight. With his fifteenth studio album, Beat The Champ, he's taken on his greatest challenge in this regard: making a concept album about semi-pro wrestling in the 1970s and 1980s. And while Darnielle is surprisingly successful at finding universality in his narrow subject matter, the narrative distance of the record precludes the intensely personal reactions that distinguish the best Mountain Goats albums.

Especially in the more recent stages of his career, Darnielle hasn't shied away from being autobiographical in his songs. This element pervades Beat The Champ as much as any other Mountain Goats record, but it manifests itself indirectly. With the exception of lead single The Legend of Chavo Guerrero, Darnielle sings from the perspective of the wrestlers whose travails he reveled in as a child. He builds an entire world around the sport (business?), one that doesn't emit the pomposity and artificiality of the WWE. Danielle's wrestlers are desperate, broken-down, and often approaching madness, and their line of work reflects that. Blood is a common sight in the ring, which bears witness to hidden pocket knives and eighteen-man free-for-alls, with no guarantee of the violence ending outside its confines (one of the most memorable lines here: "I will personally stab you in the eye with a foreign object"). It's here that he finds resonance in the concept: the emptiness of the sport, and the regret, longing and anger that's instilled in the performers. Considering how little the average listener (including myself) has invested in wrestling, it works fairly frequently. The narrator of standout Animal Mask pines for the days when he and his partner were young and felt invincible, saying "Some things you will remember / Some things will stay sweet forever." It sounds joyful, until the realization comes that all of those things are probably behind him. The devastating Unmasked details how an opponent responds to the intended humiliation of having his mask removed with relief at feeling: "Like you're free, like you can breathe now, / Like they've sawn off your cast." By the end of the song, he turns the story inward, vowing to reveal what lies within himself someday.

So while Darnielle's detailed storytelling and characters, as well as his knack for perfectly heart-wrenching turns of phrase, remain intact, there's an undeniable distance here that prevents any of these songs from achieving the personal impact of previous Mountain Goats records like All Hail West Texas or Tallahassee. The album presents a closed world that one has to find their way into, rather than shedding light on the one that we all inhabit. It's hard to let the record make its imprint on your own life when it only invites you into those of a highly specific subset of other people. It's to Darnielle's credit that he does find the universal struggles that the wrestlers share with the rest of us, but there's still a sense that we're feeling bad for these characters rather than connecting to them. Danielle's relationship with them is far more meaningful, as the album comes from his childhood spent taking refuge with these outsized characters, especially when it meant escaping the abuse of his stepfather. For him, it remains a symbol of a broken childhood, and it leads him to delve into the subject without a trace of irony (as always). So while some individual songs can leave an impact, a whole album with these characters prevents them from having the consistent resonance of The Mountain Goats' great concept album Tallahassee, which tracked the far more universal experience of a marriage falling apart.

As always with Mountain Goats albums, this is a lyric-driven record, but there are some prominent musical developments here as well. Darnielle's songwriting here remains consistently strong, with the only serious missteps being the awkwardly lurching Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan and closer Hair Match, which never delivers on its apparent build (leadoff track Southwestern Territory is fairly limp by Darnielle's standards as well). The mix of acoustic guitar, piano, strings and horns that worked so well on 2012's excellent Transcendental Youth still effectively drives this record. Unfortunately, Darnielle's attempt at distinguishing this album musically consists mainly of adding woodwinds to the mix, which I can rarely condone in rock records. The band's musical growth from the days of lo-fi recordings on 4-tracks isn't all that interesting to me, for two reasons: one, because All Hail West Texas is one of those lo-fi albums and is by far my favorite Mountain Goats record, and two, because, they basically consist of additional studio elements stacked on familiar chord progressions and song structures. There's also a desperate lack of catchy songs and memorable choruses and melodies here, largely explaining why it doesn't stick the way that Transcendental Youth did.

All in all, this isn't a bad direction to go after fifteen studio albums and countless other releases (600 songs!) into a career, as Darnielle again proves that his excessive specificity as a storyteller doesn't mean he can't tell us something about our own lives. Hopefully his future output puts himself and his more universal characters back at the center so he doesn't have to strain so hard to do it.