By now the songwriter-singer-novelist-metal critic John Darnielle has written hundreds of songs. As the Mountain Goats, he's issued dozens of albums, cassettes and 45s since he first started recording music on a boom box in the early 1990s. Under his own name, Darnielle is responsible for the literary novel "Wolf in White Van," about a paralyzed metalhead who conceives a magnificently intricate video game. Published to high praise in 2014, the book was one of 10 fiction finalists for the National Book Award. The man can write.
In its own way, "Beat the Champ" is as richly imagined and detailed as "Wolf in White Van." It's a concept album, except instead of spinning odes to the deaf, dumb, blind pinballer of "Tommy," the record's overarching theme is the world of wrestling.
Specifically, Darnielle, 48, draws on the tumbling dramaticists of his youth, and does so through rhymed verses, oddly anthemic choruses and striking characterizations. "Nameless bodies in unremembered rooms / Know how a man becomes a beast when the wolfbane blooms," goes the chorus of "Werewolf Gimmick," about a wrestler in search of an in-ring identity.
"Choked Out" features lyrics drawn from the mind of a grappler being held in a chokehold. Like Ambrose Bierce's stream-of-conscious story "An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge," written from the perspective of a man in the midst of being hanged, "Choked Out" consists of thoughts running through our hero's head as he's losing consciousness: "All the colors of the rainbow flood my face / I lift off right into space / I can see the future it's a real dark place."
Throughout, Darnielle switches perspectives, draws miniatures in rhymed couplets and moves through lines with gleeful precision. He explores one fighter's decision to switch allegiances and the backlash from the crowd: "Let all the trash rain down from way up in the rafters," he sings defiantly. "I'm walking out of here in one piece — don't care what comes after."
Musically, the album's equally daring, touching on meditative rock, Steely Dan-suggestive jazz tones ("Fire Editorial"), indie pop ("The Legend of Chavo Guerrero") and, on "Unmasked," tragic balladry. "Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan" is a memorable acoustic death march about a dressing room altercation.
Throughout "Beat the Champ," Darnielle and his band exude confidence and a sense of purpose. It's the writer standing on the top turnbuckle, gauging the reaction, pumping the crowd before leaping onto the lifeless bodies of his naysayers.
The Mountain Goats
"Beat the Champ"
3.5 stars out of four