the Mountain Goats: In The League With Dragons (Merge)

Evergreen US indie troupe add excellent new entry to their ledger with seventeenth LP

Released Apr 26th, 2019 via Merge / By Erick Mertz
the Mountain Goats: In The League With Dragons (Merge) the Mountain Goats… in case you weren’t familiar, and were waiting for me to expound upon their merits for you, what do you want to know? the Mountain Goats are a band of shifting members first from California, now out of Durham, North Carolina. the Mountain Goats are fronted by the poet laureate of rock (and multi-genre literary figure) John Darnielle. the Mountain Goats are a band that after seventeen critically albums of interesting music, you had better damn well know by heart.

As with previous records in the band’s catalogue, In League With Dragons is an album centered on the art of lyrical storytelling taken to the highest degree. This has been the band’s calling card since 1995’s Sweden and led to a few curious experiments with form. Darneille has packed the twelve tracks with yarns of an epic scale here, and its no surprise that the result is a surprisingly cool lesson in outsider history.

On Doc Gooden he tells the tragic story of mid-80’s New York Mets pitcher whose comet like streak onto the baseball sky crashed in a blizzard of cocaine and obscurity and eventually a no-hitter. The way Darneille tells his story though it’s oddly dignified, an unexpectedly tender elegy about fading glory. On Waylon Jennings Live you can feel the grit and grime of a bygone country bar filled to the door with drifters and thieves. It’s visceral almost to the point where you want to pull up your sleeve and wipe your bare arm through the evening’s worth of spilled beer, blood and whiskey.

While Gooden and Jennings might be obscure, they are recognizable icons. On In League With Dragons, Darneille continues his practice of raising heroes out of the strangest and most mundane places. Take Cadaver Sniffing Dog one the album’s early teasers, a paean to an animal whose scene entrance is always under shadow, but nevertheless, spares man from confronting his saddest moments. When someone says that no one writes songs like the Mountain Goats, this is exactly the kind of song they mean.

The track Younger comes across as exceedingly bare and riddled with urgency, chock full of sad lyrical images, none more so than broken bones used to build ladders. The song blows out in the end, saxophones and a demonstrative percussion that almost sound like a Dave Matthews Band song. I said almost. Some of the instrumentation on In League With Dragons is inspired, like the title track which bounces with pop country verve, featuring a slide guitar element, and the elegiac keyboard track, Invisible 2 which centers on the lyric, “I’m going to burn it all down today/and sweep all the ashes away”. The record closes on Sicilian Crest a track that straight out of 80’s pop movie soundtrack, reminding us that the band also has a penchant for the unexpected.

While In League With Dragons comes with an air of nostalgia baked into the fantastic cover artwork and fluffy Dungeons & Dragons back story, the record features moments as stiflingly bleak as other albums in the band's – take Tallahassee. There is an open-air quality to the woe struck stories though, a beauty in the chain link cracks and weed filled asphalt crevices. The scenes described are all characteristically late story, Gooden when he was on his career’s tail slide, Jennings on the run, and yes, a domestic scene gone wrong in which the dog rescues us from facing our frailties.

What does this mean? This isn’t just a ho-hum good record. This recording stands as a good one for a Mountain Goats record. While this won’t break ground like All Hail West Texas it builds on the legacy of poetic storytelling that Darnielle has regaled us with for decades. On repeat listens, I don’t think In League With Dragons necessarily works as a concept album. Those “inspired by” statements are some hyperbole. After seventeen records, I think John Darnielle is the only real concept behind The Mountain Goats. 4/5