The Mountain Goats broke the Merge Records website.
In late January, the Durham label announced it would soon be releasing its third album by the longtime outlet of singer-songwriter John Darnielle. Though Darnielle has been incredibly prolific during his quarter-century career, this new music, collectively titled Beat the Champ, would mark his first musical release since 2012's Transcendental Youth and his debut novel, last year's Wolf in White Van. So his fans—so fervent and obsessive that they were once the other half of a Mountain Goats profile in New York magazine—flooded the Merge site, temporarily drowning and downing it with requests for pre-orders. Adding to the urge: Beat the Champs was, at last, Darnielle's long-rumored full-length ode to professional wrestling, filled with 13 songs about many of the masked and sweaty gladiators who had inspired him through childhood.
Beat the Champ delivers on that promise. These 46 minutes reveal a motley cast of fascinating characters, captured in the assorted throes of their chosen profession. There's the financially motivated and physically capable madman of "Choked Out," who loses just after boasting "Everybody's got their limits/nobody's found mine." There's the sentimental protagonist of "Animal Mask," exploring the nuances of his relationship with a fellow warrior while they both battle through an 18-man cage match. And in the closing five minutes, there's the morally conflicted warzone of the "Hair Match," where even the victor sounds disappointed in the dehumanizing conditions of shaving someone's head for an arena of strangers.
In fact, what's best about Beat the Champ is what's been best about even the worst Mountain Goats albums: They afford chances to sit and learn both facts and feelings from Darnielle, whose mind of many enthusiasms finds poignant life lessons in seemingly arcane scenarios. (Read from front to back, Darnielle's catalog promises the equivalent of a year in college and another spent backpacking a continent.) What other songwriter can reference the astronomical "Hertzsprung-Russell diagram" during a song about being sliced to death in Puerto Rico without making it feel forced? Darnielle does so in "Stabbed to Death in San Juan," this album's actual champ.
But musically, Beat the Champ struggles to find either a center or a through line, bouncing as it does between so many styles and looks. The gambit, for instance, leaps from the woodwind-supported piano majesty of "Southwestern Territory" to the bustling praise-and-worship strums of "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero." The dramatic, cello-abetted "Stabbed to Death Outside of San Juan" arrives bookended by a busy piano pop tune and a 156-second shouted tirade about a veteran who shows up at the ring for blood, ready to "clear the goddamn floor."
The ballad "Heel Turn 2" is a beautiful, bittersweet reflection on a good guy compelled to play a villain by circumstances beyond his control: "President of the fan club up there, choking on his tears," Darnielle sings, the catch in his voice swiftly summarizing the scenario. As the band falls away, though, he continues playing a circular piano melody, routed through an electronic haze that suggests the more atmospheric work of Japanese composer Ryuichi Sakamoto. It's a redundant epilogue, an attempt to make sure the listener gets a point that's already been stated so eloquently by the song itself.
More than a decade ago, Darnielle made the shift from recording his music by shouting and strumming into the microphone of a boombox to producing sophisticated albums in professional studios. The results have been mixed, but Beat the Champ is the first LP to feel like it's been built from the skeletal remains of previous songs. The tunes themselves are rushed to the point of being unimaginative, as if the most important thing were capturing these thoughts rather than perfecting their settings. Though that strategy worked perfectly for Darnielle's one-man bustle in 1995, it's much less flattering for a full band in 2015.
Back in January, when the Mountain Goats broke the Merge Records website, the label unveiled "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero," the first offering from Beat the Champ. An update of sorts to the anthemic "Dance Music," it's a breathless ode to a lineage of Mexican wrestlers who gave Darnielle hope as a kid. "Look high, it's my last hope," Darnielle sings in the chorus, totally jubilant. "Chavo Guerrero coming off the top rope." Later that day, Guerrero's son, himself a wrestling star, gave the song the thumbs-up through social media. No matter the problems Beat the Champ has, that story of redemption alone is worth the listen. It's a perfect encapsulation of the Mountain Goats' entire narrative: Find some comfort somewhere, even on the hard mat of a professional wrestling ring.
The Mountain Goats play Cat's Cradle with Ides of Gemini Tuesday, April 7. The 8 p.m. show costs $20.
Label: Merge Records