Wordsmith, genius song-writer, metal enthusiast and all-rounder nerd John Darnielle has released roughly ten billion records as The Mountain Goats, and since transitioning from lo-fi cassette underdog to established folk hero, he's released classics such as Get Lonely and Transcendental Youth, dealing with what it feels like to be hauled up inside your own head, even when there's a world of stories out there. Beat The Champ is a concept album based around pro-wrestling, because of course, and it comes swiftly after the release of his debut novel, so promises narrative prowess of the highest.
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It’s been a long while since chief mountain goat John Darnielle put out ‘Transcendental Youth’, a brass-assured treatise on loneliness and staying alive in a rigged world. Since then, he’s released his first novel, ‘Wolf In White Van’, which offered another arena for him to postulate grand ideas through sad words; he returns now for his fifteenth studio album with the literary tricks refined, for a concept album that’s entirely about pro-wrestling. Uh oh. I feel a solipsism coming on.
Do you have to like pro-wrestling, then? No. It helps, I’m sure, but Darnielle isn’t the the kind of songwriter who goes in for relatable tunes; he takes you into his world, forcing you to live among its solitary characters and experience their bizarre fortunes. Some of these songs see him as protagonist, digging into his own history with the pseudo-sport -- “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” is a touching slice of twee folk with handclaps, upward strums and a story about Darnielle’s childhood hero, a Mexican wrestler who helped him feel justice in a ring where his abusive stepfather reigned. For the most part, though, these songs are total character studies, taking on the rock opera bravado of “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan” (with strings so sharp they could be out of Jesus Christ Superstar) or the silly brass cartoonmanship of “Foreign Object”.
There are plenty of signature Darnielle moments: “Unmasked!” is a sparsely strummed half-ballad with a voice as cracked and whispered as the entirety of ‘Get Lonely’. That this album is perhaps his strangest and most sporadic doesn’t stop it from being a touching, often introspective work -- Darnielle can give any narrative something worth crying about.
9/10 Steve Customer review, 1st May 2015
After (by his usually prolific standards) something of a sabbatical since the release of 2012's Transcendental Youth in which he released his first novel, the ever erudite John Darnielle returns with possibly his most accessible record yet.
Returning to the themed album concept of his 4AD releases, JD sets his sights on the world of professional wrestling from his youth for Beat The Champ, exploring the concept in the typically wry and emotive way that Mountain Goats fans have come to expect.
Lyrically, the wrestling motif is expanded to involve, on lead single and album standout The Ballad of Chavo Guerrero, his own troubled autobiography ("You let me down but Chavo never once did"), the prospect of life on the road with a family (Southwestern Territory's pledge to "remember to write in the diary my son gave to me") and the band's most abiding theme, mortality, as the caged wrestler please from the ring on Heel Turn 2, "I don't wanna die in here." Musically, there is much to write home about, with the band, comprising stalwart bassist Peter Hughes and indie rock allstar sticksman, Jon Wurster, truly finding their feet to explore new melodic avenues. Heel Turn 2 appends its climax with three minutes of soft pedalled ambient piano which could come from a Harold Budd opus, Fire Sermon attempts (with some success) full on Gershwin/Bernstein-esque jazz, and Foreign Object accompanies its violent braggadocio ("I am personally going to stab you in the eye with a foreign object") with a jaunty baritone sax rumble.
But there is plenty here for the purists too; ...Chavo Guerrero is likely to join the ranks of This Year and No Children as a cathartic singalong, Choked Out's acoustic punk motors along at some speed, and Animal Mask joins the ranks of Darnielle's more sinisterly quiet efforts.
Overall, it's no reinvention; nobody wants that, but rather a part of the steady progression towards eclecticism since the recruitment of Wurster in 2008 and, above all, a marvellous Mountain Goats album that simultaneously has nothing, and everything to do with wrestling.
As a post-script, the deluxe vinyl edition is beautiful, and the extra track on the 12" (and its dub cousin on the B-side) are amongst the strangest things that the band has ever produced.
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