Dear John Darnielle,
First things first: big fan, right here. I’m one of those diehard Mountain Goats junkies that has pledged an unhealthy amount of time to albums like Heretic Pride. So, given my diehard love of your work, one would assume I came to your new album Beat The Champ with near orgiastic expectation. But the truth is I was rather dreading it.
You see, I’ve never been into wrestling, and although you assured us in the album’s pre-release write up that even non-wrestling fans were going to enjoy the album, I was still nervous. Up until this point, you’ve written about subject matter that I love and understand. What was I going to get out of an album about wrestling of all things?
The short answer is, of course, a lot. So I’m sorry, John. I judged your book by its cover. In truth, Beat The Champ might be one of the best things that you’ve ever recorded. It is an album wholly and completely about wrestling and wrestlers: claims that it is about other things seem like academic ways of avoiding the record’s central point. Without ever being condescending or overly intellectualized, you have crafted a record that bursts simply and powerfully with stories of the ring.
Beat The Champ represents an immersion into a world I always knew existed, just never found myself drawn to. But it’s composed with such care and such compassion that even a newbie to the subject matter such as me could get a great deal from tracks like Choked Out. I might not always understand the jingo, but I understand the people. Beat The Champ is a swansong to heroes like Chavo Guerro, a wrestler who stands at the centre of one of the album’s greatest tracks, The Legend of Chavo Guerro. “Chavo meant the most to me” you sing. Well, now, simply through the compassion and power of the music, he means something to me too.
A song like Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan might be one of the most powerful songs I’ve heard all this year. Of course, the lyrics are on point, but the track also benefits one an incredibly accomplished vocal performance. Werewolf Gimmick brings to mind the growing turmoil of Lovecraft in Brooklyn, and yet somehow also sounds like nothing The Mountain Goats have ever recorded before. It’s an incredibly felt tune; a tragedy of epic proportions that is at once deeply human and yet deeply mythic.
I wrote this review as an open letter because: a) I’m a postmodern twit like that, and b) because Beat The Champ seems like a letter of sorts. It is, above all else, so personal and so intimate that it stops feeling like an album; it becomes a direct missive, from one human being to another. On that level, and on so many others, it is an unremitting success.