The Mountain Goats

Beat the Champ

BY Jer FairallPublished Apr 6, 2015

"Some things you will remember / Some things stay sweet forever," John Darnielle sings at one point on Beat the Champ, his 15th full-length album under his long-running band moniker the Mountain Goats. It's a deceptively sunny tip of the hat to his recurring fixation with memory and the ongoing process of understanding and making peace with his own fraught past, here manifested in 13 songs devoted to his childhood spent as a fan of professional wrestling as it existed in the bizarre, pre-Wrestlemania era of the 1970s.
Yet, just as Darnielle has previously used sources as diverse as Charles Bronson movies and the Bible as inspiration for lyrics that mix fiction, memoir and reverential observation, Beat the Champ mines an unlikely and, one would think, limited source for surprisingly rich pathos.
Of the extensive Mountain Goats discography, Beat the Champ most clearly evokes 2005's The Sunset Tree, a nakedly autobiographical record that took as its subject Darnielle's experience growing up with an abusive stepfather, undoubtedly because both albums derive their subject matter from the same period in the songwriter's life. 
In its most poignant moments, Darnielle locates the ways in which his haunted childhood converged with the absurd testosterone pageants of pro-wrestling: "I need justice in my life," he sings in "The Legend of Chavo Guerro," observing how the spectacle's simple good-triumphing-over-evil morality resonated with a child whose own reality was much more complicated. Even more devastating is "Heel Turn 2," about one character's betrayal of his own heroic narrative (a "heel turn" in wresting is when a protagonist abruptly turns into a villain), a dramatic convention rich with implication in this context.
Among the most incisive songwriters of the last three decades, Darnielle also remains one of the most generous. When his perspective extends beyond personal reflection to pay tribute to some of his childhood heroes, his portraits are remarkable for their empathy: "The Ballad of Bull Ramos" finds the character in his post-wrestling career, clinging to his glory days as his health wanes, while "Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan" recounts the strange murder of wrestler Bruiser Brody in appropriately stark detail.
The flexibility of Darnielle's songwriting perspective is mirrored in the range of his band's music. The fifth consecutive Mountain Goats album to feature guitarist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster as regular band members, Beat the Champ continues this once very lo-fi (early M.G. albums consisted entirely of Darnielle recording his voice-and-guitar sketches on a cheap boom-box) outfit's trend towards increasingly ornate arrangements, the songs ranging from the nimble jazz-combo setting of "Fire Editorial" to the urgent heavy metal stomp of "Werewolf Gimmick." 
Such sonic adventurousness, matched with Darnielle's singular presence as a storyteller and a songwriter, make Beat the Champ yet another highlight in a career overflowing with them.
(Merge Records)

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