REVIEW: the Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ
I’ve discussed my skepticism about this album before. It seems John Darnielle, singer/songwriter behind the Mountain Goats, anticipated this as he’s mentioned his reasons for doing an album based around wrestling in various interviews leading up to its release.
Well, I’m officially sold. This is the band’s best album in years and thematically, it works. The action, excitement, feeling and sadness all coalesce into a powerhouse of a record as emotionally charged and dramatic as the WWE.
The album opens with “Southwestern Territory”, which at first seems like another Mountain Goats piano ballad (not that I’m opposed to those), but about 15 seconds in we get the first glimpse into some of the new instrumentation Darnielle and Co. employ. I had the pleasure of seeing this song played with just John and a piano last year and while I enjoyed it, I think the full band treatment, even if restrained, is beneficial. It’s a strong opener and almost a statement: “Wrestling songs can be poignant!”
“Foreign Object” may be the highlight for me. How the hell can a song where the chorus literally talks about stabbing someone in the eye be so cheery? The song almost has a ska feel to it with the horns jumping out of the mix. It’s certainly the catchiest track.
The next track, “Animal Mask,” is upbeat too, but a bit more reflective. Not that I’m ruling out some deeper meaning behind the song about jabbing something in someone’s face, of course – this is The Mountain Goats, after all. Yet “Animal Mask” has a certain intimacy to it’s twangy gallop. The narrator sings to his partner: “I’ll be right there / pull your mask down through your hair / they won’t see you / not until you want them to. “ It’s a statement of the depth of the relationships between these performers.
Darnielle has proven before and proves here that he can bring a darker anxiety to the listener. “Stabbed To Death Outside San Juan” says as much with its title, but it’s the ominous strings that come in about a minute in after a slow burn of a build-up. “Werewolf Gimmick” doesn’t even bother with the pretense and calls to mind the intensity of past tMG tracks like “Lovecraft in Brooklyn” or “Alpha Incipiens.”
The album closes with “Hair Match” which is, along with “Heel Turn 2,” is a fitting end. My limited knowledge of wrestling turned me to the Internet, where I found out a hair match is where the loser must either by unmasked (which is the title of the track a couple songs earlier) or shaved by the winner. In other words, ultimate ruin.
Beat The Champ is an album best taken as a whole. There’s no common character, but rather the overarching idea of sacrificing oneself for the thrill of the sport and the roar of the crowd. It’s about forgoing a life of normalcy for one of sometimes glory, but more often leading to defeat, which nowadays might not look all that different from the music industry.
“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”
“Heel Turn 2”
You can stream the entirety of Beat The Champ for a limited time over at NPR!