The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ (Merge)

An unexpectedly profound album inspired by American professional wrestling

Released Apr 13th, 2015 via Merge / By Henry Bainbridge
The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ (Merge) “John Darnielle is an American musician and novelist best known for…” So starts the Wikipedia entry for the founder, front man and, at times, sole member of the Mountain Goats. While the novelist tag is fairly new, following the release of last year’s Wolf in White Van there has always been something of the literary about Darnielle’s musical back catalogue, which is filled with richly detailed narratives, recurring characters and emotional insights that blur fiction with reality.

The latest Mountain Goats release is Beat The Champ, a ‘concept’ album that takes its focal context as Darnielle’s childhood fascination with the 1970s Californian and Southwestern pro wrestling circuit. It’s not as willfully-quirky as such a specific subject might sound. It’s a fascinating exercise in reflection. Thousands of miles and tens of years away from his childhood home in Central California he re-approaches the world of heroic wrestlers and dramatic storylines to, in his own words, “See what more there might be in them now I’m grown.”

Slipping between the past, the present and a timeless imaginary, Darnielle shows how childhood experiences reverberate into adulthood and with adult perspective elaborates on the complex emotions that elude a child’s empathy and understanding.

The hopeless tragedies of those “nameless bodies”, such as Bull Ramos, who sinks into obscurity after his wrestling career and dies of diabetic complications aged 68, and other are realized now by Darnielle and he also places himself in the ring to conflate the wrestling match with his personal life events. 'The Legend of Chavo Guerrero' details the, at times, petty abuse he suffered from his Stepfather, 'Animal Mask' portrays the birth of his child.

The record is far more than a selection of clever lyrics though, the songs are built upon a foundation of catchy melodies and instrumental hooks that combine into an Americana that takes in country, punk, jazz, rock and tango. The lead-off single 'The Legend of Chavo Guerrero' is a fine example of this; chunky acoustic guitar pounds out a riff that could be the bastard offspring of 'Sweet Jane' while double-tracked vocals detail the heroics of Chavo, the “defender of the down trodden”.

Despite the specific focus, the message that comes out is less uniform. In examining the highs and lows of wrestling careers Darnielle uncovers his personal conflicted state; “Everybody’s got their limits, nobody’s found mine.” he growls over the punky 'Choked Out', yet by the next song, the bitter 'Heel Turn 2', he now admits “You’ve found my breaking point. Congratulations.” A hollow laugh finishes the statement.

Such confliction is what makes such an engaging listen; all is laid bare and laid bare beautifully. Carefully chosen word patterns bounce over the accompaniment, crisp strings and honking horns punctuate, and triumph is never far from disaster. This record is a heartbreaker that pulls at the part of you that never forgot what it meant to believe in something with all your heart.