I never thought that I would say this, but someone decided to make a concept album about professional wrestling, and it’s beautiful. Next week, the Mountain Goats, led by John Darnielle, will be releasing their 15th studio album. Beat the Champ continues a line of enrapturing albums that never disappoint. With 15 albums in 21 years, the Mountain Goats have to be one of the most prolific bands in musical history, but what makes this such an incredible accomplishment is that John Darnielle’s writing and creativity have never weakened. Beat the Champ has once again brought the incomparable language of John Darnielle into a brand new context.
Undoubtedly, the first thing that a fan of the Mountain Goats will tell you is that there has never been a lyricist quite like John Darnielle. His ability to manipulate the English language is second to none. He is constantly able to bring images to life in ways that I wouldn’t be able to imagine on my own. He is a keen observer of the world and a lover of information, and as a result he is able to assemble concepts from different realms of interest into entirely new forms. This is precisely the process that can be heard on Beat the Champ. Beat the Champ tells the story of a fictional (as far as I know) professional wrestler who is inspired by the likes of Chavo Guerrero. He rises to the heights of stardom and witnesses the brutal hardships of the fighting life. To say much more than that would spoil the fun of diving deeper into Darnielle’s lyrics, but anyone who is familiar with the Mountain Goats will know that the album is about much more than wrestling, as wrestling proves to simply be a forum in which to explore more pervasive issues.
Over the years the Mountain Goats’ sound has expanded to fit a wider range of instrumentals. John Darnielle started off by recording several albums on a boom box. The low-fi recordings of voice and guitar with the occasional bass, drums, keyboards, or additional voices carried his 90s rock/punk sound and adapted it into folk. Since the release of Tallahassee in 2002, the Mountain Goats have moved into professional studios, and have explored the perks that come with those methods. Beat the Champ opens with a piano and the voice of Darnielle, soon to be backed up by twin clarinets and bass, and later incorporates horns and cellos. While the Mountain Goats used to lean almost exclusively on guitar for the backbone of their sound, Beat the Champ has a more even split between piano and guitar-oriented songs. Overall the record has a very rich, textured sound, and even gives the listener some time away from vocals.
John Darnielle’s unmatched songwriting ability leads me to believe that the Mountain Goats will never release a disappointing album. It seems that virtually every artist that has a long career will at some point put out an album that fails to live up to expectations. With Darnielle’s ability to craft his language, I don’t think they will ever produce something that doesn’t compete with the rest of their work. Beat the Champ comes out April 7, but the good folks at NPR are currently streaming the album, so give it a listen a little early!
PS. John Darnielle’s mastery of language recently was adapted into book form. He wrote a short novel called Wolf in White Van, and it’s a beautiful piece of work. I highly recommend it.
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