Bookish ex-North Carolina psychiatric nurse John Darnielle has been writing and recording brainy, rickety, resolutely lo-fi indie-folk under The Mountain Goats guise for over two decades now. Chronicling small-town losers, jilted lovers and high school misfits in both unsettling and celebratory fashion, Darnielle’s fifteenth album Beat The Champ sees him and his band turn their attention, for the course of an entire LP, towards the world of American professional wrestling.
Concept albums on unlikely subject matter have developed into something of a Mountain Goats speciality. 1994 fan fave and paean to adolescent outsiderdom All Hail West Texas charted the triumphs and setbacks of a pair of juvenile Lone Star State metalheads, whilst Tallahassee (2002) - the record containing perhaps Darnielle’s best-known song (an intentionally OTT salute to astringent post-divorce hysteria entitled “No Children”) - was themed around the painful breakdown of a couple’s relationship.
The Life of the World to Come from 2009 used a different Biblical verse as inspiration for each track, whilst 2011’s All Eternals Deck - named after a set of imaginary fortune-telling cards - tilted the Mountain Goats into the realms of the fantastical, with songs referencing Liza Minnelli, Charles Bronson and even vampire attacks. Darnielle’s debut novel, Wolf in White Van, was published last year and concerned the tribulations of a teenage role-playing game obsessive.
Beat The Champ is one of the most poignant Mountain Goats albums in recent memory; like Darren Aronofsky’s tremendous 2008 film The Wrestler, Darnielle is adept an eliciting great pathos from the world of baby-boom era professional wrestling. Opener “Southwestern Territory” provides a sort of Mission Statement, as Darnielle lays out his intention “to remember what life was like long ago.” The following track, “The Legend Of Chavo Guerrero”, an exultant yet genuinely affecting ode to the titular El Paso star, does an excellent job of addressing precisely that topic. Revelling in lost memories of Chavo’s triumphs, we are transported back to a time when an impressionable young Darnielle would sit rapt in front of during fuzzy black-and-white Spanish-language TV broadcasts “lying on the floor, bathed in blue light”, with the singer juxtaposing treasured childhood experience with bitter recrimination (“he was my hero back when I was a kid/you let me down, but Chavo never once did...”)
The jaunty, horn- saturated “Foreign Object” provides one of the most gleeful MG shout-a-long mantras since those celebrated “HAIL SATANS!!” at the climax of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” (“I’m gonna poke you in the eye with a foreign object!!”) A punkish, 90 second long track, “Choked Out”, chunters along heroically as Darnielle snarls out his grappling-hold themed lyrics. There’s also room for more serious reflection during “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan”, a dramatic account of the events leading to the death of Frank “King Kong Brody” Goodish, and a country-tinged eulogy for the 70s Houston fighter, “The Ballad of Bull Ramos.”
Theatrical, impassioned, and occasionally heartbreaking, Beat The Champ distills the very essence of classic Mountain Goats into another compelling album.