The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle Finds Refuge In The Ring

Apr 14, 2015

The Mountain Goats have a new album called Beat The Champ. It's unusual in that it is a concept album about professional wrestling, based on the interest in that sport band leader John Darnielle has had since he was a boy. Darnielle is also a prose writer whose novel Wolf in White Van was nominated for a 2014 National Book Award. Fresh Air rock critic Ken Tucker has this review.

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This is FRESH AIR. The Mountain Goats have a new album called "Beat The Champ." It's unusual in that it's a concept album about professional wrestling. Band leader John Darnielle has been interested in the sport since he was a boy. Darnielle is also a prose writer whose novel, "Wolf In White Van," was nominated for a National Book Award in 2014. Rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of "Beat The Champ."


THE MOUNTAIN GOATS: (Singing) Get stomped like a snake. Lie down in the dirt. Cling to my convictions, even when I get hurt. Be an upstanding, well-loved man about town. In your child's mind, that's how it goes down. But I try the losing side. I don't want to die in here. I don't want to die in here.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: When I read that the new Mountain Goats album was a song cycle about pro wrestling, I could almost hear the interest in my brain click off. Hey, I like professional fighting as much as the next guy, though mixed martial arts is more my thing. But I made the stupid assumption that rock songs about wrestling would be as loud and aggressive and maybe as willfully stupid as pro wrestling is. I should have given the brain behind Mountain Goats, John Darnielle, more credit. It turns out that this is a transfixing collection, filled with a remarkable range of melodies and moods.


THE MOUNTAIN GOATS: (Singing) Eighteen-man steel cage free-for-all. Through the noise I hear you call for help. You can't protect yourself. Frog mask and yellow cape, so desperate to escape, I came to you, hands wrapped in adhesive tape. That was when we were young and green, in the dawning hours of our team. Some things you will remember...

TUCKER: That's "Animal Mask," about the costumes or gimmicks fighters use, the colorful characters wrestlers embody and which captured the imagination of John Darnielle when he was a kid. Throughout this album, Darnielle executes twisting turns of memory, nostalgia and reporting as he describes what it was like to find escape and inspiration in the fights he saw on TV or staged in Los Angeles's Grand Olympic Auditorium, a magnificently grungy site. Sometime during the late '70s, I myself went to see a fight there with the rock critic Richard Meltzer, as well as checking out the punk rock acts that the Olympic occasionally booked.

A couple of aspects of this collections merit special attention. The first is that Darnielle's vocals here are as elastic, varied and expressive as anything he's ever recorded. The other is the impressive variety of tunes he has composed, from acoustic pop to brawny rock and a middle ground that lends itself to storytelling, such as this salute to one of Darnielle's favorite real-life wrestlers, "The Legend Of Chavo Guerrero."


THE MOUNTAIN GOATS: (Singing) Born down in El Paso, where the tumbleweeds blow, to the middleweight champ of all Mexico. Dad fought many bloody battles, and he raised four sons. Chavo was the oldest one. Old man Gory could pop like a live grenade, raised his boys in the way of the trade. Hector and Mando, young Eddie G, but Chavo meant the most to me. Look high, it's my last hope, Chavo Guerrero, coming off the top rope. He came from Texas seeking fortune and fame...

TUCKER: This album isn't all fondly phrased nostalgia. It doesn't shy away from the violence and crumminess and crudity of its subject. Darnielle executes his own version of a wrestler's takedown on a blunt song like "Foreign Object."


THE MOUNTAIN GOATS: (Singing) Whipped like a dog down on the cards. Square in the spotlight, sweating real hard. All soaked in blood like a newborn babe, sharp thing hidden in my hand shaped like an astrolabe. Going to stick you in the eye with a foreign object. Going to poke you in the eye with a foreign object. March through the red mist, never get my vision clear. Learn to love this kind of atmosphere. Strike funny poses. Keep my weapon hand low. Whip my head around a little. Get blood on the front row.

TUCKER: Ultimately, this album, "Beat The Champ," isn't just John Darnielle revisiting a youthful passion from the perspective of a canny adult, although that in itself is a significant accomplishment. As he has proven over the years in many Mountain Goats albums, Darnielle is especially good at capturing the way pop culture can serve as an inspiration, a comfort, a refuge for young people feeling besieged by the world around them. He makes you feel the sweat, muscle and mental exertion it takes to get out from under the heaviest opponents in your life.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV. He reviewed the new album "Beat The Champ" by The Mountain Goats. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.