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Album review: ‘Beat the Champ’ by the Mountain Goats drops the elbow

 

When you think about a concept album, ideas of space travel or the future come to mind. But for the Mountain Goats, a concept album means singing about professional wrestling in the 1980’s. Strange, yes, but “Beat the Champ” is also provocative and heart-warming. With its precise and lush instrumentation and lyrics that are unparalleled in uniqueness, The Mountain Goats have brought something to the ring that no other band could dream of defeating.

Founded in 1991 by John Darnielle, the Mountain Goats have produced 15 records, most without a major label. Darnielle is still the principle songwriter and composer for the band, while collaborating constantly with other musicians like Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster to round out their sound.

They identify as an indie folk rock band, but utilize a diverse symphonic sound. Their latest album, “Beat the Champ”, is a biographical chronicle of pro wrestling in Southern California during the territorial era. Even though this is an unusual field to construct an album around, Darnielle has made it accessible for those who know nothing about the sport. The tracks on this album are catchy, poignant, and wild with metaphors so that anyone can understand the emotions behind the words.

The album begins with “Southwestern Territory”, a quiet ballad about the life of someone in the wrestling industry. It is not necessarily a lament but a reflection on a life well spent in staged entertainment. The vocals are piercing and evocative, tonally high but sung with an enticing whispery quality.

The piano and woodwind mixture add warmth to the ensemble, an auditory hug for the listener. With words swimming through the airwaves like, “Stand in that cold empty hall / Wait for your name to get called / Burn like a hillside on fire / In the squall of the ringside choir / High as a wire” is it no wonder Darnielle identifies with this profession. Very much like being in a smaller band, being a wrestler is made up of seconds of excitement, then hours and days of waiting.

“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” is next, a much more upbeat ditty with a full rock set up: drums, bass, guitar, vocals, and even a tambourine. This tune makes you want to bob your head, and at only three minutes long, it is well worth it.

Lyrically, Darnielle discusses the power of one of his favorite fighters as well as powering an ever-growing fanatic obsession. Lines like, “I need justice in my life. Here it comes”, and “He was my hero back when I was a kid / you let me down but Chavo never once did” shows how important this character was to a young Darnielle, giving him someone to look up to. This song is a very catchy pop track that will have you singing the chorus by the end of the song.

“Foreign Object” is a straightforward jam about jabbing someone in the eye with a foreign object, while “Animal Mask” is a metaphor for Darnelle’s experience in the delivery room with his wife. The juxtaposition of a literal song with a metaphorical one is a reflection of the reality of wrestling’s physical toll and the artifice of wrestling character.

The next song brings you back up with a furious energy. “Choked Out” has a punk energy with lyrics you can actually understand. “Heel Turn 2” describes a fighter who is getting the stuffing kicked out of him. The song is a metaphor for trying to escape an oppressive environment as the chorus pleads “Come unhinged / Get revenge / I don’t want to die in here / I don’t want to die in here.”

The most well-conceived and delivered track on this album is “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan”. The first two verses are spoken and sound like a verse from a Cake song. The orchestration is spectacular, a great cacophonous use of strings, guitar and resonating bass. This song relates the last hours of Bruiser Brody, a wrestler from the 1970s and 80s who died as the result of a violent altercation in a locker room shower in Puerto Rico.

The album ends with “Hair Match”, easily the calmest song on the album. The dissonant plucking of the guitar strings are paralleled by bright, encouraging vocals. This is another somber sound about the loss of a hero, but with the way the musical lilts every few bars there is hope yet left in this young fan. The hollow percussion and minimal organ use make it feel like a far-off funeral, but filled with flutes and the sound of sonic rain.

“Beat the Champ” is one of the most dynamic, original, and wondrous albums that exist. There is nothing else that sounds or makes the listener feel like this album makes you feel. Even with little to no understanding of the sport of wrestling, The Mountain Goats have managed to make it understandable and riveting.

Within the liner notes of the record, Darnielle said, “[Wrestlers] were comic-book heroes that existed in physical space. I was a child. I needed them, and every week, they came through for me.” Everyone understands the need for stability and something to root for: wrestling was that for Darnielle and thousands of others across the globe.

“Beat the Champ” is an excellent tribute to those who understand wrestling’s pull or to anyone who sought out something to cheer for at any stage in their life. Varying song structure, rhythms, rhyme schemes, and emotive qualities run rampant through this album, and everyone can grasp the want for something tangible to idolize. The Mountain Goats delivered a jump from the top rope with this album, and you can experience it on vinyl or on Spotify, but be prepared to be humming about violence for the next several days.

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