Unpopular Advent 2015 - Day 21: Mountain Goats - ‘Beat the Champ'
This story has been told before. Some friends will roll their eyes at hearing it again. But I have to state at the outset that ever since he woke me up in the middle of the night (and on a school night!) in 1994 with a transatlantic phone call to enthuse about having discovered another Stockholm Monsters fan, it has been my fervent belief that John Darnielle can do no wrong.
‘Beat The Champ’ would have had, on paper, the best chance of proving me misguided, for the thought of a record filled with songs about wrestling is hardly the thing to make my heart race. Wrestling is not something that has ever appealed, and despite this Mountain Goats record being so splendidly stuffed with marvellous stories and characters, I admit that my interest remains resolutely far from piqued.
Yet here’s the thing: As a Pop record, a Rock record, a ‘concept’ album if you must, ‘Beat The Champ’ is as astonishingly accomplished and celebratory as you could wish for. This really should be no surprise, for Darnielle and his now well established band have a deeply rich and triumphant back catalogue. To say that none are better than ‘Beat The Champ’ is saying a great deal. Plussing as which the very premise of wrestling is, as Barthes once noted, the very essence of Good versus Evil. It is Entertainment in which masked superheroes battle for supremacy in a gaudy, openly acknowledged arena of illusion and suspended belief. “Comic-book heroes who existed in physical space” as Darnielle himself said. So Pop.
It still does nothing for me though.
‘Beat The Champ’ in contrast does lots for me. I love the fact that the songs are often related through the voices of characters who both express the realities of the ’sport’ and yet transcend those narratives. This is a sign of a great writer (and Darnielle’s novel ‘Wolf In White Van’ has been, predictably perhaps, one of my favourite books of 2015 - one of a handful that tempted me from a steady diet of Golden Age English detective fiction) able to deftly get under the story and get to the essence. Loss, death, disappointment, distance, ache, weariness, whatever. ‘Beat The Champ’ is full of all of these and more.
Musically too ‘Beat The Champ’ is sensational. Veering from punked out, punch drunk explosions to tender, introspective piano interludes, often before you’ve even had time to catch your breath and gather your thoughts, it is a record confident enough to recognise the value of mood and pace changes.
‘Beat The Champ’ is a record that rewards multiple listenings. The multiple narratives and characters slowly seep under your skin and leave a delicious itch, even if (or perhaps especially if) you have zero interest in the historical realities (or otherwise) of the tales being woven. Just don’t let the wrestling put you off.
‘Beat the Champ’ is released on Merge Records and is available from all good record outlets.