I first got into the Mountain Goats because of some guy in my nonfiction workshop in college. I thought he was cute and I knew he liked the band. You put two and two together. The crush didn’t stick, but my admiration and affection for the Mountain Goats long has. So thanks cute guy in my nonfiction workshop! I appreciate the heads up!
On Tuesday (14 April), I went to see the Mountain Goats perform live at the House of Blues for the second time. They are very good live; John Darnielle has so much energy, playing hard and dancing about, getting quiet and sensitive on the piano or acoustic guitar. They do not disappoint. On this particular occasion, they were accompanied by a talented saxophonist/clarinetist(?), which really filled our their sound. The venue was packed with people, bodies thick in a throng. There were these guys in front of us, large, burly men who crashed their way up front. I was prepared to be annoyed with them all night, but they were in such genuine raptures over the band playing, I couldn’t help but grin at them all night. Imagine, these very large men, just flipping out over the Mountain Goats. It was precious.
Of all the musicians I’ve ever seen (which is no small number), Darnielle seems the most delighted that people have actually showed up to listen to his set and furthermore that said people actually know the lyrics and are singing along (sometimes violently so). His beaming gratitude is very endearing. Despite my best efforts, I still didn’t recognize all the songs on the set list. They have such a long discography! I find I am able to always find new things to enjoy in them, which is nice. Clearly, I need to give Transcendental Youth a closer listen.
The band just released a new record called Beat the Champ, a concept album about professional wrestling. I know. That sounds super weird. I also thought like you when I first heard about it, BUT you have to trust me when I tell you this is an excellent album and worth listening to. The album is honest in a way you wouldn’t expect. The album is less about the gimmicks of wrestling and more about the personal lives of the wrestlers. One song is about John’s admiration as a child for real-life wrestler Chavo Guerrero. With John detailing the rise of the wrestler and what he personally meant to a kid in need of justice:
“He was my hero back when I was a kid/You let me down but Chavo never once did/You called him names to try to get beneath my skin/Now your ashes are scattered on the wind” (The Legend of Chavo Guerrero, Beat the Champ).
The album is an intimate listen, detailing moments of despair, gore, pain, and fear. The song Heel Turn 2 talks about the conflict in knowing you ought to take the high road, but wanting to save yourself:
“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 tried/The losing side/I don’t want to die in here/I don’t want to die in here” (Heel Turn 2, Beat the Champ).
It goes into the sheer violence professionals face, the bloodlust involved in that kind of life:
“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/Gonna jab you in the eye with a foreign object” (Foreign Object, Beat the Champ).
It also documents fleeting moments of sweetness and strength:
“That was when we were young and green/In the dawning hours of our team/Some things you will remember/Some things stay sweet forever” (Animal Mask, Beat the Champ).
“All gone, all gone/Watching it go up out front on the lawn/Stay on my feet somehow/I’m strong now/Stuck there, no air” (Luna, Beat the Champ).
The album is upbeat, some songs strong and driving, others sweet and tender. It’s a personal and compelling album. I would say, even if you have zero interest in professional wrestling you can get something from this album. Darnielle is just a hell of a good songwriter. Some of those lyrics are so good I could weep. The best way to gauge if you’ll like the album is to give it a listen. Go ahead! Do it. I doubt you will regret it. If you like other Mountain Goats albums, you will like this one.
Until next time!