Fans might think they know what’s coming. As the Mountain Goats, John Darnielle has put out however many albums over however many years with whoever else. He’s also written a couple of novels. When the news came that a new album was on its way based on fantasy elements, it made sense: a concept album with a little darkness and destruction delivered through some clever and affecting lyrics. This new album goes beyond that, though. Darnielle has a steady band now, and the quartet feels locked into their vision. He also has some flexibility in sound; those cassette days are long gone, and anything with wizards can get a proper string section. Ambition, content, and timing combine to make In League with Dragons a vibrant and complex experience, particular to Darnielle’s writing style even as he and his colleagues stretch themselves.
The album ostensibly centers on a fantasy world and its struggling wizard, but it doesn’t play as anything even that straightforward. In the midst of wizard kings and navigators, we find embattled pitchers, singers, and Waylon Jennings fans. The two worlds, ours and the fantasy land, begin to blur as the album progresses. It’s best not to look for narrative in the album, but to process experiences and moments, letting the two universes reflect on each other and offer insights where they will.
The concept alone offers plenty of intrigues, but it needs (and gets) strong individual songs. The band apply an array of flourishes to their rock, touches of country and even new wave, aided by fuller orchestration, smart arrangements (presumably aided by Owen Pallett), and some extra musicians. “An Antidote for Strychnine” builds slowly, relying on atmosphere even while creating a surprisingly catchy groove. The western “Waylon Jennings Live!” opens with the unforgettable “Drunk at the Meskwaki casino / Right where God intended me to be”, letting its rolling twang lull us into enjoying the crime scene. Darnielle may have visions of blood and destruction, but he and his band haven’t been this pretty in a while.
When it all comes together, it becomes something wonderful. The title track casually suggests a path through the troubles of this world, a little steel guitar foreshadowing border casinos, but then Boris Vallejo comes to paint us. Just five songs in, we realize that life is all just a roll of the polyhedral dice. That song shifts into “Doc Gooden”, a reflection on the real pitcher, but set in his late career dismay, as he looks back not even to his peak, but to his 1996 no-hitter, an event suggesting a revival that never quite came (and he alludes to LL Cool J in the process).
“Going Invisible 2” follows with a series of threats to “burn it all down today”. It’s impossible to know if that desire comes from a wizard seeking to take back his kingdom, an old athlete in despair, or something else, tapping back at least as far as The Sunset Tree. None of Darnielle’s characters or their antagonists can ever quite recover from all of the damage. Yet the melody is so nice, and the organ sounds almost religious (the choice of various keyboards and organs carefully modifies the tone throughout the disc).
With no through narrative and no controlling metaphor at work, it would be a mistake to look for a master key. Yes, Darnielle’s original concept is fleshed out by the non-fantasy stories, but there isn’t a single tale to tell here. It would be misplaced to imagine Darnielle frantically scribbling annotations, T.S. Eliot-like, or setting up Joycean puzzles for us to work out. We get a hint of the album’s functioning in the opening track “Done Bleeding”, where Darnielle sings, “Leave a mark on the door / As an empty warning sign from one who’s gone before.” The symbolism remains more expressive than denotative, and it’s truly effective. The universe of Dragons meditates on our own experiences, but it doesn’t give answers. Its very suggestiveness evokes meaning without limiting referent.
By the time we reach closing number “Sicilian Crest”, that sort of system colors our listening. The track opens with an odd couplet: “In these times of wanting prophecy / And false witnesses up to all manner of deviltry.” Does it mean now, in the US, or some time in an imagined land? Does the following line about “heretics’ blood” allude to an earlier Mountain Goats album? Answering the questions misses the point of the moment. Likewise, reading the track as an allegory of our current political climate shrinks the value of the song. The music offers hope amid impending doom, but it’s hard to tell if the “man bearing the Sicilian crest” is an Aragorn-like deliverer or a populist demagogue, and we’re not called to determine that.
The album, then, finishes with some ambiguity, sounding like hope in a forlorn land. It makes sense, as the whole record comes with navigational challenges as well as a web of insight. We take the stage in Passaic, New Jersey, and then plead before a rival king, and both events make sense. From the album’s premise to its cover art, In League with Dragons could stand conceptually as the most Mountain Goats thing ever. Given the album’s smart execution of its vision and its memorable songs, that’s good news in this or any world.