I think we can just spot John Darnielle on this one, right? Because despite Beat The Champ being just an alright Mountain Goats album, it seems like a bit much to ask that every Mountain Goats album be great, since even though I haven’t heard all their albums, I’ve heard quite a few, most of which are pretty great. And sure, it’s been a while since Darnielle has put out an album with The Mounatin Goats (their last was 2012’s pretty great Transcendental Youth), but during that time he was focusing on writing and publishing the novel Wolf In White Van, which upon it’s release last year was nominated for the National Book Award For Fiction. So yeah, I think the guy has earned at least a pass or two, and especially when I can’t accuse Darnielle of not daring to try something new with this concept album about professional wrestling, and how its heroes draped in tights and masks shaped Darnielle’s childhood.
Since I’ve never really had any interest in professional wrestling at any point in my life, and because I have even less of a connection to the kinds of regional, slightly underground wrestling of the ’70s and ’80s that Darnielle is singing about here, it’s hard not to feel a little disconnected from the subject matter here. However, there are some nice lyrical moments on Beat The Champ where we see Darnielle cutting through the ludicrousness of colorfully dressed men flying through the air, and revealing the humanity lying underneath these costumes. Though I feel like there isn’t ever a clear throughline that comes across musically, as some of the songs are disarmingly upbeat, while others seem so shrouded in darkness that it makes the album feel a little unfocused, and especially for what is supposed to be a concept album.
Still, there are a couple stand-out tracks that are more than deserving of their place in the Mountain Goats canon, and which I look forward to seeing live when The Mountain Goats roll into town in late May. “The Legend Of Chavo Guerrero” has served as a nicely rockin’ single, and an infectious example of this late-period iteration of The Mountain Goats that has featured the heavy drum-hand of Jon Wurster. “Foreign Object” is also a surprisingly brassy number that calls back to the band’s last album, which showed a more full-sounding version of this band that wasn’t afraid to reach beyond its more modest folk tendencies. But unfortunately, I haven’t had much luck connecting with the back half of this album, and thus makes Beat The Champ less of a knockout, and more of a, well, whatever you call a tie in wrestling.
Favorite Tracks: “The Legend Of Chavo Guerrero”, “Foreign Object”, “Heel Turn 2”