The Mountain Goats – Beat the Champ

When word emerged that the Mountain Goats’ next project would be a concept album about professional wrestling, it seemed a device for John Darnielle to do a bit of slumming, maybe let his hair down musically, following the National Book Award nomination for his first proper novel, Wolf in White Van. The record’s cartoon cover only reinforced this notion. Darnielle had other ideas, however.

Beat the Champ takes as its muse the Southwest regional wrestling scene of the 1970s, before the game went national. “Almost completely unknown outside of Texas and the west coast,” as Darnielle puts it, and where he presumably became inculcated growing up in central California. And he’s not above inserting the occasional dollop of mariachi bass and border music kitsch. But Darnielle otherwise approaches his subject matter with great reverence, and largely as lyrical allegory.

Beat the Champ soars on the bookending “Ballad of Chavo Guerrero” and “Ballad of Bull Ramos,” both lively and apparently factual retellings of wrestlers’ lives, with emphasis on their out-of-ring existence and relevance. Recalling watching Guerrero as a child on Spanish language television, Darnielle sings, “I need justice in my life/ Here it comes.” Given his own history with an abusive stepfather, the line carries added poignancy. Likewise “Animal Mask,” a tale of coming to the aid of a passing acquaintance in a cage match “Hold on, I cried, I’ll be right there/ Pull your mask down through your hair. They won’t see you/ Not until you want them to.” Over a career that’s now approaching 25 years, Darnielle has gradually chosen when to reveal more of his personal history.

The only truly raucous track, “Choked Out,” is merely pretty good – elsewhere the Mountain Goats continue to grow more ornate, with the introduction of stately woodwinds on tracks like “Southwestern Territory.” My main reservation is that Darnielle has foregrounded the lyrics to such an extent that at times the supporting tunes risk becoming a bland afterthought.

Along with the “ballads,” Champ’s highlights include “Foreign Object” (as in “gonna stick you in the eye with a…”) and “Heel Turn,” a first-person exploration of a wrestler crossing over to the darkside, which concludes with a gorgeous Darnielle piano coda. The Mountain Goats didn’t influence Darnielle’s National Book Award nod, which makes his writing accolades beyond musical circles all the more gratifying. Darnielle’s passion has always been storytelling, and he’s edging further in that direction. If indie rock tunes brought you to the party, you may merely want to sample the highlights. But if you’re a lyrics hound, Beat the Champ is a must have.

The Mountain Goats
Beat the Champ