John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats have frequently built albums around intense concepts. We’ve gotten records about break-up and divorce. We’ve gone through the pain of domestic violence. We’ve explored addicts and scripture. It makes sense, then, that the group’s latest album would focus on professional wrestling.
Well, maybe it doesn’t, but sometimes sports albums, like sports movies aren’t exactly about the sport; the games merely provide a venue for exploring bigger issues. Darnielle takes time to look at life through wrestling, but at the same time, Beat the Champ is a wrestling album. It wouldn’t fit in another event, and it would carry the bigger issues within the sport: identity, hope, justice, and loss.
The album might be at its most fun when it’s most clearly a wrestling album. Of course there’s a song called “Foreign Object”. The horn-led track comes fully in character about a wrestler ready to break the unenforced rules to get what he needs — violence, acclaim, victory. “I personally will stab you in the eye with a foreign object,” Darnielle sings. There’s no question of the reality of wrestling now, no accounting for taxes or athletic regulations. Within the world, the world is real.
And that reality’s blurred. Darnielle’s songs focus on characters (some real, some imagined) with potent internal thoughts. It’s not always clear when the song is about wrestling and when the wrestling is about something else, as on “Animal Mask”, which Darnielle has connected to the birth of his child. This uneasy position adds weight and depth to the album, the sense both that these things matter and that they matter profoundly.
That weight can still be joyful. The album’s highlight, “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”, speaks to Darnielle’s fandom during a tough time in his childhood. When he sings, “Look high — it’s my last hope / Chavo Guerrero coming off the top rope,” he expresses a sentiment universal in it’s specificity. He needs “justice in his life”, and he finds it through a hero, through victory in the ring. He can find some catharsis in Guerrero’s violence and even process a complicated relationship with is stepfather. In the end, Guerrero’s life outside the ring makes sense: he has a family, including a wrestler son, and we get the happy ending that doesn’t need to be colored or serialized into infinity.
It’s not all that easy, though. Given to us in song-length bursts in an array of styles and personalities, the wrestlers here have complex relationships to their work. “Heel Turn 2” tells the story of a man turning from hero to villain. The melancholy atmosphere won’t let us take pleasure in the development, but the singer has to jump into the change completely: “Throw my better self overboard / Shoot at him when he comes up for air”. Still when he sings, “I don’t want to die in here,” it’s easy to hear it as hope for an escape from the villainous box he’s found himself in. The piano outro doesn’t offer much hope.
In an album where people get stabbed to death and get injured out of the ring and go blind, there’s need for some uplift, as when Bull Ramos continues to stand with his whip in hand. But even when the album’s bleak, it provides a vital energy. Each song, without being overbearing, carries significance with it, and sometimes the awareness of meaning and a brace of vigor is enough. In looking through this world, the Mountain Goats have made one of their best albums of the last decade, and they’ve done so knowing that while sometimes life is bigger than the squared circle, sometimes that ring is enough.