The Mountain Goats’ new album, Beat the Champ, is John Darnielle’s most autobiographical record since The Sunset Tree.
Upon initial listen, the record seems to be nothing more than a loving homage to late seventies professional wrestling, a middle-class entertainment that Mr. Darnielle has consistently listed as a childhood favorite of his. Indeed, Mr. Darnielle himself has spent most of his interview cycle for this record thus far describing those surface images in taut detail.
But a close study of the record – coupled with recognition of the band’s historical use of analogy and track sequence to elucidate broad and personal themes in carefully considered and subtle ways -- reveals much more than that. Thus, to get to the heart of this record, a couple of layers need to be unpeeled.
First and foremost, the album is striking in its parallels to working class life – a sympathy that has long been embraced by the Mountain Goats, most recently recognized in their cover of There is Power in a Union, recorded in a show of solidarity for the public teacher's union in Wisconsin. Each of the songs on Beat the Champ can be understood from this view point. Digest Southwestern Territory sung by a truck driver, far from home or not having a real “home” at all, while meditating on the fact that one day he will die on the road. Close your eyes and take in Foreign Object from the view of a retail salesman, secretly disdainful of and angry towards an overbearing manager. Enjoy Werewolf Gimmick imagined by a union man fed up with being constantly trained on a job he’s had forever, temporarily losing control, in an unexpected minute on the factory floor, punching and screaming like a mad wolfman, calm every day until one day he loses control.
With just a bit of thought and distance, nearly every song on the record can be seen from this perspective. Wrestling is a perfect fit, a perfect hiding place for these metaphors, because in the late seventies and early eighties, wrestling was a working class sport for working class people, scripted and performed by working class athletes. And, on Beat the Champ, we are provided with working class lyrics, written for working class people, scripted and performed by a working class musician.
And this is where the autobiographical element of Beat the Champ really begins to reveal itself. Because the reality is that the Mountain Goats are a working class band; and John Darnielle is a working class musician. In this digital age, where music is purloined more than it is purchased, residuals are no guarantee of an easy financial life. The Mountain Goats are no Jay-Z or Taylor Swift. Like so many independent musicians today, they must tour almost constantly, selling their wares in the form of t-shirts and posters; tote bags and the occasional vinyl album along the way. Like so many of their counter-parts in today's independent music scene, there is no viable choice but to tour incessantly. And what does that tour look like? Twenty five cities in thirty days, playing and replaying the same songs over and over again - the most popular and demanded song are ten years old or more. Like a wrestler that plays out a scripted event, so, too, do touring bands play out these scripted events - set lists that often vary little; stage banter that is revered by fans, but often finds itself being repeated, in one form or another, over and over each night. When Mr. Darnielle is asked about what some of the most respected traits he assigns to old school wrestlers, he most passionately emphasizes their commitment to the passion of their performance. We must remember that the songs that Mr. Darnielle performs are never real - not on this album, not on the Sunset Tree, not anywhere - they are performances. He is a performer. But, with every performance, Mr. Darnielle, like the wrestlers of the seventies, is performing, but he does so with all the passion they did back then, in small auditoriums and civic centers. Though it may be scripted, the songs are real in that moment. And, with this in mind, it holds to reason that he chooses to write songs that speak to his own truth, his current truth, to help him summon up the emotions to make the scripts he speaks as true as possible when he sings them, as the audience takes them in as real, perhaps allowing himself the smallest degree of distance by cloaking these efforts in an over-the-top wrestling theme. Yet, the mirage makes the emotions no less true.
To see the broader, more personal theme that builds on Beat the Champ, it is necessary to consider track sequencing – something for which Mr. Darnielle has repeatedly emphasized the import. This purposeful track sequencing brings into view a carefully camouflaged autobiographical arc. The album starts off with Southwestern Territory, from the perspective of a tired man on an endless road, like the Cowboy in Big Lebowski, a one man greek chorus, revealing moments of high intensity surrounded by long days and nights of waiting around, sometimes a passenger, sometimes a driver, as he “tr[ies] to remember what life was like long ago.” As the song concludes and the next one begins, we observe as our narrator remembers what life was like long ago. Thus, that next song, the Legend of Chavo Guerrero, isn’t really about Chavo Guerrero or his legend at all, but about a young boy daydreaming of something better; something bigger. This is our narrator, remembering. The televised daydreams are not all clear, transmitted in a foreign tongue that, in his youth, our narrator could only partially understand. The narrator references, without explicitly stating, his own stepfather, who let him down and tried to get beneath his skin; compared scornfully with Chavo, who trained his sons and stood by their side as he grew old – something the narrator never had.
This slight nod to this stepfather is a small but critical one which begins the pattern to thread together the autobiographical arc of the album. This seeming aside marks an important transition into the third song on the album, "Foreign Object." The term 'foreign object" was a common one in seventies and early eighties wrestling circuit, referencing an apparently sharp knife or blunt club to be used for nefarious purposes, n easy out for a heel to defeat a stronger foe, magically succeeding to do so every time just out of eye-sight of the referee; sometimes several times in a row. Juxtaposed against the frustration with his stepfather's mockery the narrator describes in the the Legend of Chavo Guerrero, it is easy enough to imagine the young narrator closing his eyes angrily at one of these matches, declaring under his breath that someday, he would, indeed, poke his stepfather in the eye with a foreign object; muttering it silently, over and over again with slight iterations, every time he endured him cheer on a heel. Taken in a vacuum, the song could fall squarely within the Mountain Goats' silly song category, fun to sing along with at shows but not much more. Taken in context, it is an exercise in repressed adolescent aggression and rage. It is the Lion's Tooth of the record. All of this has been covered already.
With "Animal Mask," though we move past the past, leaving the Sunset Tree in the rearview mirror. Describing an 18 man Battle Royal, a deep field of competitors each struggling to survive, dashing away enemies and making alliances they hope will last but know cannot. "Through the noise I hear you call for help. You can't protect yourself." Each man is on his own, but the "good guys" are trying to help each other. There is a colorable comparison between these wrestlers and working men in a factory hoping to win more overtime, or young, ambitious corporate workers struggling up the corporate ladder. It could also be seen as a set of young musicians working together in a scene, trying to help one another succeed, but looking first and foremost at their own careers, their own survival. In the best of the Battle Royals, as in the best music scenes that grow and flourish, more than one participant can sometimes survive, shaking hands and sharing the bounty together, looking back later at the "good old days." As with most bands that have reached some success, Mr. Darnielle sings of these leaner, freer times with an unmistakable fondness in his song: "Some things you will remember. Some things stay sweet forever." This is a narrator who sings of surviving the initial fights, and is still singing about himself, but who has left Sunset Tree territory far behind.
Success has truly found the narrator in "Choked Out." The two hundred purse is his now, and he has to fight hard to keep it, fighting so fiercely the nurse is worried. The narrator "kicks and claws and scratches and bites," giving a hundred percent to his performance. The mirror image of the Mountain Goats early years - relentless exercises in an angst-ridden man fiercely pounding his demons away on a cheap guitar with no pick - can be described no differently than this. These must be easy lyrics for Mr. Darnielle to sing - he has been living it for years. He has been on the road performing with all the passion he can muster, in countless towns and cities, just like his heroes of yesteryear's wrestling circuit. Again, success has found him, with the "crowd screaming like hounds at the heat of the chase," and he giving it his all, with "all the colors of the rainbow flood [his] face." But even in his time of triumph, as he lifts up into space, a dark foreboding nevertheless looms: "I can see the future. It's a real dark place."
In 2002, the Mountain Goats released Tallahassee, going full on electric and with a production level that was far higher than anything they attempted in their lo-fi early days. Later, in 2009, the Mountain Goats released The Life of the World to Come, an album in which every song title was a reference to a bible quotation. Acclaimed by many, both of these moves were also met with derision by some of the Mountain Goats most dedicated fans. Many felt betrayed at the move, disappointed, protesting on internet forums and message boards. A "Heel Turn" to some. Thinking the band was "turning religious" or too "mainstream," some abandoned the band altogether, swimming awkwardly away like a speared and wounded albatros. "President of the fan club up there, choking on his tears." "Fire Editorial" plays along these same lines, with these fans who "cry real tears when its over," with "crushed hopes" and "tawdry dreams": they observe a performer traveling the country, not afraid to injure for the sake of his performance. Like the beats of old, crying Judas to Dylan, these former fans missed the point of these pivots, and both Tallahassee and the Life of the World to Come are largely regarded as among the band's finest work. Still, it marked an important point in the arc of the Mountain Goats, and for the first time they were seen, by some at least, as heels. And just like the wrestling narrator who ignores the pleas of his fans, the Mountain Goats take the turn that is right for their music, right for them. "Spent too much of my life trying to play fair. Throw my better self overboard, shoot at him when he comes up for air." And now for the first time, although the narrator suggested earlier that he would "die on the road someday," in "Stabbed to Death" he seems to worry about the distasteful ways that death can come on the road, in this life, unexpected and violently, his survival instincts are kicking in. The narrator begins to resist: "I don't want to die in here."
With "Werewolf Gimmick", the narrator is back to pleasing crowds, so used to the script that he need not even show up to rehearsal anymore. The narrator has turned jaded and skeptical, the audiences are no longer playing or singing along in a small venue. They are now just "nameless bodies in unremembered rooms." He empties the locker room so he can be alone. When he comes onstage, he is a caricature of himself - a wolfman gone insane; just what the audience is pleading for. Yet, there is a distance growing between the performer and the audience. The performer is in disguise and the audience is far away. Perhaps, burn out is setting in. The forewarning we observed in "Choked Out" has arrived. This is the future, and it has indeed become a real dark place.
Like any story of struggled success, burn out inevitably plays a part, and inevitably it "burn[s] hard." In this novella of a record, "Luna" and "Unmasked" are played in this key. Starting off ominously, "all gone, all gone," the crazed tempo and wide-eyed glare of "Werewolf Gimmick" and "Choked Out" are gone, all gone. In their stead is a sense of a wearied traveler's recognition, almost as though he can see the finish line, but it still sure seems a long ways away. In the meantime, the burnt grave smolders so heavily, names can be traced in its ash. All the while, the narrator manages to stay on his feet, but he still has to take a break, a "pause in mid stride," before he can continue to "ride and ride and ride and ride." And be it the union man, the wrestler or the musician, the ride is a long one. But towards the end, though a "cast of thousands" has circled around the narrator throughout nearly the entire tale, after he's managed to tear through the stitching and saw off his cast (that cast of thousands?) in the end there are just two: the narrator and the reflection that he reveals in the mirror, finally unmasked. It is over. It is finally over.
This tale, though over, is still determined to end with a ring of triumph. Flashing forward into old age, we learn that our fearless narrator did not, as was forewarned in the album's first song, "die on the road someday." He made it through, with a victorious roar of "never die, never die!" His body slowly gives away, as all do, but his slow demise comes as he stands on two feet, able to care for himself. He loses a leg as the result of a cut on his foot, but at least it happens when he is working in the shop, standing on his own two feet. This is as about as autobiographically correct ending Mr. Darnielle would likely hope for himself, being a person who freely quotes bible verses that provide biblical support for working hard until the end. He didn't lose his life on the road; in the end, he will be departed in nature's way. While he waits without fear, confident he will "never die," he works, but he makes his own rules now. If this were the end, the future narrator's tale of departure would be perfect, rising to his end, but surrounded by friends.
But this is not the end. We learn, also, in "Hair Match" that our narrator does not expect to get out so easily. Mountain Goats albums don't go down that way. The one man greek chorus returns and shares with us that, although in older age, the narrator keeps his hair long, "because he can, because he can," these conquests don't come without a price tag: memories of the sundry degradations he was forced to endure, like us all, to get there. The images in the record's final song may be a simple portrait of a wrestling tradition, a match in which the losing party must be humiliated through a forced hair cut. But the act symbolizes so much more, past disgraces endured, and which haunt the memories and keeps the narrator humble in his victory, even while wearing his hair long "because he can." And so it goes for the working narrator. And the working man. And the working musician.
Or maybe it's just a record about some wrestlers.
- P. William Grimm.