In 2009, The Mountain Goats released Life of the World to Come, a melancholy album which found its roots interpreting Bible verses. Fans trusted singer/songwriter John Darnielle to avoid Christian rhetoric and preachiness and were rewarded with a dozen tracks of surviving heartache, loneliness, and death. In Beat the Champ, Darnielle once again asks fans to trust him as he delivers thirteen tracks about wrestling.
Of course, in the past twenty some-odd years, the songs are never really what the songs are about. Darnielle is a poet invested in word play and the subtle malleable flow of language. Beat the Champ, on the surface, focuses on the early days of professional wrestling and its bloody and pre-Hulkamania rawness. It’s an album whose premise can be as alienating as religion. But, just as wrestling itself is a gimmick of violence and melodrama, there exists something under the mask of Darnielle’s lyrics.
In “Choked Out”, The Mountain Goats deliver one of the most rocking studio tracks in the post-Tallahassee years. It’s an adrenaline rush of of a number about surviving against the odds and pushing beyond one’s limits. “Heel Turn 2” and “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan” harken back to older songs in The Mountain Goats’ catalogue, with the latter sounding like something vocally culled from one of the early cassettes . Hell, even “Foreign Object” echoes an obvious refrain designed to be an encore sing-a-long; but, mark my words, the real crowd thumping will rise for the “ba ba da da” filler at the end. Beat the Champ exists as a culmination of sounds from decades worth of experience.
Overall, it’s a fantastic album. TMG seem to have found their groove with the full backing band sound of horns, slide guitars, and piano, but something itches at the back of my mind. After several albums with this advanced sound (advanced from brutalizing an acoustic guitar and singing about Anglo-Saxons), there is an ‘adult contemporary’ feel in this new direction. The lyrical complexity still makes Darnielle one of the greatest songwriters of the last fifty years, but the music itself is strange in that there is no real genre to it. Tracks jump from acoustic strummers, piano crooners, crowd-pleasing rockers, and Tin Pan Alley showtunes.
Trust in The Mountain Goats.