Music Reviews
In League with Dragons

The Mountain Goats In League with Dragons

(Merge) Rating - 7/10

At first, it might seem intimidating to jump into the scrupulous mind of John Darnielle. The literary-minded singer-songwriter will tackle ambitious album concepts that target specific niches—pro wrestlers, goths, the Nicene Creed, Tarot cards, and so on. Any topic presents a possibility for Darnielle—he'll research any subject to better infuse his stories with accurate references. On his 18th album as The Mountain Goats, In League with Dragons, Darnielle takes inspiration from table-top role-playing games and fantasy/crime novels. Those are terms that may raise an eyebrow with either cluelessness or skepticism, but as it usually is with his narrative abilities, he brings a relatable perspective despite the potentially off-putting premise.

There's no other subject than Darnielle himself on album opener Done Bleeding—soft piano keys vacillate from merry to ominous, as he recounts his days taking care of patients in need while he was doing time at a state hospital. Whereas on Passaic 1975, he once again remembers his struggles with addiction (even if told from the perspective of shock rocker Ozzy Osbourne) over placid, Americana jangle pop. Darnielle, never shy of putting himself front and center, brings along his robust backing band to add some rhythmic gumption to his precise observations.

Darnielle usually makes slight instrumental changes to augment his acoustic arrangements—a staple on his entire career. That said, In League with Dragons might be one of the first where the richly detailed instrumentation can compete with Darnielle's spirited, verbose storytelling. He's even content not being the center of attention—from the breezy, soft rock of Clemency for the Wizard King to the country-folk of Doc Gooden, Darnielle maintains a calm, gracious delivery over the busy instrumental flourishes. The strum-led Younger manages to bridge both with striking incandescence, as Darnielle adds subtle touches to the board game Dungeons and Dragons alongside a jazzy, multi-part progression.

Those who are actually into mythical creatures and wizards and so forth may find a lot of easter eggs tucked within Darnielle's clever tie-ins. Coming off as a comparative literature academic, he compares aging wizards to athletes on the barreling honky tonk of Waylon Jennings Live! On the title track, he indirectly shows his admiration for Peruvian fantasy painter Boris Vallejo as his band plays in the form of barroom country rock. His words are as grandiose as the epic imagery ascribed to his influences—there's the Gary Portnoy-like piano pop of Sicilian Crest, where he alludes to a leader who may protect his land from invasion.

Though Darnielle skillfully furthers his compositional approach in In League with Dragons, there are times where his unbounded, bookish wit gets the best of him. The organ-led Going Invisible 2—which has a feel for R.E.M. circa Automatic for the People—shares the stark, yet profound simplicity of 2006's Get Lonely —a clear example of how Darnielle can be just as evocative with minimal resources. Still, he continues to paint vivid, imaginary characters that always feel alive, as much as his authorship reveals aspects of his personal life through his fiction. And that, in itself, is Darnielle's heroic feat.