opinion by NATHAN WISNICKI
The lede here is that you won’t need to know any more than you already do about professional wrestling to enjoy this album on even a surface level. So you can all breathe a sigh of relief, because you probably don’t know anything about professional wrestling and it’d be painful to fake it. I mean, am I out of line by wagering that if you’re a fan of an “indie folk rock” band called “The Mountain Goats,” there’s already like a 79 percent chance you’ve never even watched a wrestling match in your life? I certainly haven’t.
Yet by the same token, most us many scrawny stalwarts who’ve followed John Darnielle’s writing on even a surface level, musically or otherwise, can just greet anyone’s bemusement by imitating Tony Shalhoub’s Hollywood producer in Barton Fink: “John Darnielle. Wrestling album. Whaddya need, a roadmap?”
In other words, it’s no leap for anyone who’s kept up to understand how the guy could conceptualize an album about wrestling - specifically the pre-WWF wrestling world of the ‘70s and ‘80s - and not wind up sounding like a pretentious twit. As often, Darnielle's themes rise from youth re-contextualized and aphorized on through the benefit of age, but with a more, err, universal and even cosmic scope applied casually to things that once seemed merely painful or mundane (or both). The anticipated autobiographical “gist” is confirmed clearly early on in the album with the peppy “Legend of Chavo Guerrero” (named for a “defender of the downtrodden” wrestler who was one of Darnielle’s childhood heroes): Darnielle himself is seen as a kid in Texas lying on the floor watching a Mexican wrestling telecast on a black and white TV and “bathed in blue light,” and summates the spirit of the album in one line: “I need justice in my life…here it comes.” Cut to us scrawny stalwarts already expecting that.
Loose concepts of whole Mountain Goats albums have ranged from adolescent Texan ne’er-do-wells to doomed self-destructive couples to meth-heads to verses from the Bible. Fun times, I agree! But he’s an ambitious guy, and in an endearing way, thoughtful and humble in equal measure, and Beat the Champ’s words don’t add up to novelties or gimmicks — especially when you consider the anemia that passes for sharp writing these days. As per usual, you’d be able to play many of these songs out of context without your average listener even suspecting they’re “about” wrestling or wrestlers.
Thing is, Darnielle keeps getting juice out of his sociological constructs because he’s a hell of a writer who — and this is of course crucial — doesn’t leave the music to just tag along for the ride and stare vacantly at the dashboard. Even just sonically, the new album is something fresh: where most Mountain Goats records were generally spare if not downright austere in terms of instrumental palette - usually just acoustic guitar, piano, bass, and drums, with simple chords and rhythms and the occasional bit of electric fuzz - 2012’s excellent Transcendental Youth brought a thicker, punchier mix with pronounced horns and winds. Beat the Champ, while itain’t Songs in the Key of Life, keeps up the move toward eclectic instrumental color; from the clarinets speckling into the cautious opener to the big sassy horn blurts blended with bass feedback in “Foreign Object”, to the aching pedal steel and hushed Rhodes piano in “Animal Mask” and “The Ballad of Bull Ramos”, to the strings filling slowly but surely with mortal dread in “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan” (and broken up very unnervingly by a loud descending cimbalom (!) figure), there’s plenty of sounds for your ears to savor before your mind even has to do a damn thing.
Darnielle’s songs contrast brutal flesh-and-bone realism (though not too much beyond the first five songs, actually) with the strange spiritual calms felt before, after, and even during combat. So much so, in fact, that some people have already posited analogies to Darren Aronofsky’s grotesquely self-reflexive cinematic pity-party The Wrestler. Let’s nip those analogies in the bud. Where The Wrestler was an exhausting ordeal rife with shaming bathos about “fallen glory” ultimately rendered completely hopeless, the songs on Beat the Champ aren’t defeatist and the fragile hopes they stumble on aren’t overly sentimental. After starting calmly and then speeding up with the three hookiest songs, the album takes a darker, more melancholic turn halfway through, with the character in “Heel Turn 2” shakily clinging to his convictions while “drifting into the new dark light” and offering a frail, exaggerated “congratulations” to the one who found his new breaking point. “Stay good under pressure for years and years and years and years,” he sings, with each repetition of “years” flagging a bit, like the sum is too tenuous a concept to even consider. The one-line chorus goes, “I don’t wanna die in here,” and when the entire back half of the song fades into a gorgeous, genuinely dreamy piano/ambience outro, you’re forced to ruminate on why he should have to. It’s clear we’re not just talking about wrestlers here, right?
Later on, Darnielle is miked very close for “Unmasked!” and he doesn’t do what you might expect from that title - i.e. depict a triumphant unveil in the ring for the “cast of thousands” - and instead sets the song in a dressing room after the fight, in front of a mirror. The way he breathes the line “peeking through the eyeholes” or “…like they’ve sawn off your cast” seem intentionally to call up a childish, daydreamy innocence, and the juxtapositions are startling within the album’s context (and no less beautiful outside of it). (“They won’t see you/Not until you want them to.”) While I wish the anxious “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan” had been a little less vague, and the odd balance of nervousness and contentment in the closing “Hair Match” is simply too long and stretched too thin, the music redeems them both in passages: the former with its unnerving arrangement (hinging on the way Darnielle sings the word “twitch”), the latter with its flutters of flutes and clarinets while Darnielle’s character looks at the cheap cars below the stars. It’s almost like we’re meant to consider those flutters in contrast to the more tentative way the same instruments opened the album up.
If I’ve been focusing overmuch on the slower and sadder songs, it’s only to assure you that these soft sad songs are so much more worthy of attention than the mere draining kind you usually get in “behind the mask” poetry. Make no mistake: there’s plenty of fun here, plenty of blood — literally and otherwise. Besides the aforementioned glee of “Foreign Object” and “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”, check the big heavy strut of “The Ballad of Bull Ramos”, which regards stoicism and immortality with a kind of chilled-out awe (the pedal steel groove the band get into is wonderful), or “Animal Mask”, which may well be the straightest and sweetest song Darnielle’s ever written, and he probably knows it: “Some things you will remember/Some things stay sweet forever,” he sings, with wistful pedal steel and Rhodes piano and what I could swear is a touch of accordion in the background. Oh, and the way he sings the words “tiger dance,” like a kid trying not to stir a flame? Forget about it!
None of this would come to much if Darnielle wasn’t so keyed-up in the more aggressive songs, and there I think lies the album’s heart: both the doomy lows and the savage highs are drawn so far apart that you’re allowed enough room to think about all the parts that could apply to the “real world” here in 2015. And lemme tell ya, he doesn’t make it hard — and I don’t mean that in a condescending way, because it’s clearly intentional. When Darnielle’s high, nasal, shaky voice barks out phrases like “If you can’t beat ‘em, make ‘em bleed like pigs” or “nameless bodies in unremembered rooms” or “stand with a bullwhip in my hand and rise, surrounded by friends,” it stops you short because professional wrestlers aren’t supposed to sound like that, especially to the non-initiated. Note the fantastical imagery of flame: Chavo Guerrero “coming off the top rope” is likened to a descent with fire to punish “the people who deserved it most.” Not “leaping” or even “jumping” off that top rope: just “coming.” A lesser writer would’ve hammed that up.
The straight feverish adrenaline is on full display in the loud and fuzzy “Choked Out”, a run into a “an endless dark incline” with an unforgettable snarl: “If they all wanna die dead broke, that’s fine, that’s fine!/Everybody’s got their limits/Nobody’s found mine.” The voice genuinely makes you think, “Whoa, this guy’s got nothing to lose, or at least he’s fully convinced himself he’s got nothing to lose.” Again: it’s about justice. In the album’s opening song, Darnielle sings: “I try to remember what life was like long ago…but it’s gone, y’know,” to which anyone who’s kept up can fill in the implicit response themselves: look alive! B+