After a late night I did a rare thing and slept in. Part of me feels like I wasted the morning, but most of me just feels like I needed the rest.
Disc 1032 is…Beat the Champ
Artist: The Mountain Goats
Year of Release: 2015
What’s up with the Cover? Wrestling in all its ridiculous over-the-top cartoon glory!
How I Came To Know It: This album was #89 on a list pulled together by Paste Magazine of “Top 100 Indie folk albums of all time.” I went through that list pretty meticulously, and “Beat the Champ” was one of my favourites. It also introduced me to the Mountain Goats.
How It Stacks Up: I ended up liking the Mountain Goats a whole lot. I now have six of their albums, with plans to buy at least two more. Of the six I already have, “Beat the Champ” comes in second or third, depending on how I’m feeling about “Tallahassee” at that moment.
Ratings: 4 stars
The Mountain Goats is pretty much John Darnielle, and John Darnielle is a mad, musical genius. “Beat the Champ” is him at his most mad and inspired both thematically and musically.
Like a lot of Darnielle records, “Beat the Champ” is a concept album, in this case built around professional wrestling. Darnielle returns to his boyhood, and the joy he would take going to see the local circuit wrestlers in California. On the surface it doesn’t seem to be a topic that would hold your attention. However, Darnielle is so good at intertwining the stories and imagery of wrestling into deeper explorations of his own psyche it works.
A lot of early Mountain Goats has sparse production, usually just a single organ or guitar, but on “Beat the Champ” Darnielle brings in horns, sounding flourishes to make the whole ridiculous pageant of wrestling come to life. It then contrasts all that excitement with quiet confessional songs that turn the same imagery inward where they become metaphors for our internal struggle between our public face, and our private doubts.
My favourite song is “Foreign Object” which is about exactly that; an illegal object that the wrestling villain (or ‘heel’) would use to even the odds against the hero. The triumphant horn section is juxtaposed against the villainy of the cheater.
While the wrestling is fake and staged, Darnielle’s investigation of their personalities, and their personal triumphs and difficulties, is genuine. “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” tells the story of the hero, saving the day for the good wrestlers as he comes off the top rope, dispensing justice.
At the other end (of both his career and the album), “The Ballad of Bull Ramos” catches us up with a wrestler long after his career has ended, now just another truck driver. An old man, he is mostly forgotten but still has flashes of his former greatness, such as when his doctor recognizes him. It is a fleeting glory, but Darnielle does a good job of showing that it still matters. The song is a love letter to the joy these men once gave him, but at a deeper level it’s an examination on aging gracefully.
“Heel Turn 2” strips things down to an insistent guitar strum, filled with the anguish and frustration of a life unraveling. The plaintive chorus of “I don’t want to die in here” repeats over and over, as the singer desperately tries to hold onto the hero birthed inside of him years earlier while sitting ringside watching Chavo Guerrero. The song ends with a two minute piano instrumental that could have ended up self-indulgent, but instead is exactly what you need after all the pent up emotion that comes before it.
The album moves around musically, sometimes pulling from R&B, sometimes from folk music and on “Fire Editorial” even taking a trip into jazz. Even with all these styles, the album never feels cobbled together, but instead has a natural flow and solid pacing.
The wrestling themes fade and blur again and again into questions of identity, and what it means to be a good person. On “Unmasked!” Darnielle sings like he’s whispering you a secret:
“Crowd’s half gone, just a few hangers-on
Come to see me finally tear through the stitching at last
And you don’t care, you almost look relieve down there
Like your free, like you can breathe now
Like you’ve sawn off your cast
Just one more sleeper to see through”
“And by way of honoring
The things we once both held dear
I will reveal you.”
It isn’t just a song about a wrestler taking his mask off later that evening after the show. It is a song about how we all wear our masks, and take our turns trying to be the hero, while sometimes secretly feeling like the heel.
As a kid I watched wrestling, but long ago gave it up as contrived and silly. It had been so long I had totally forgotten how much joy I used to get out of all that silliness. “Beat the Champ” not only brought those old feelings back the surface, it made me see the wrestlers as people, and not just characters for my amusement. Then the album went deeper and took those lives as a foil for examining how we should live; coming off the top rope like Chavo Guerrero, and aging with grace and dignity like Bull Ramos.
Best tracks: The Legend of Chavo Guerrero, Foreign Object, Heel Turn 2, Unmasked!, The Ballad of Bull Ramos