Release Date: Apr 7, 2015
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
I havenâ€™t watched pro wrestling since I was in middle school, maybe younger. And now, John Darnielle, head honcho behind the Mountain Goats, has got me researching wrestlers. I would follow this man to the ends of the earth, obviously.To the uninitiated, this might seem like an odd topic for an album by an indie artist who many outsiders may deem a â€œheavyâ€ lyricist, perhaps hearing things about Darnielle writing fictional tales of doomed couples who eventually divorce, tweakers who just canâ€™t help ruining their lives, and the death of his abusive stepfather.
Beat the Champ is the fifteenth Mountain Goats album. It is also, at least on first appearances, a concept album about professional wrestling, which emerged from John Darnielle’s desire to 're-immerse [him]self in the blood and fire visions that spoke to [him] as a child'. Assumedly that explains why Beat the Champ is more violent than your average wrestling match.
In this life, you take your iconic experiences where you find them; some people have their world-view turned upside down by Gabriel García Marquez, Steve Reich, or Akira Kurosawa, while others find their epiphanies through Tom Clancy, Rush, or Star Trek, and who's to say they're any less valid? John Darnielle of the Mountain Goats was a passionate fan of professional wrestling when he was a kid in the '70s, before the game reinvented itself into a glossy entertainment experience akin to a hair metal concert. Darnielle was attracted to the action and the story lines in which heroes battled heels in rundown auditoriums and on syndicated TV week after week, but as importantly, it was also one of the few things that allowed him to bond with his stepfather, one small place where their obsessions crossed paths. For Darnielle, wrestling was clearly more than just noisy fun, but a sort of folk theater that spoke of good and evil, and how decent men must sometimes mimic their nemeses to serve the greater good.
The question isn’t why John Darnielle made an album about pro wrestling but why he didn’t do it sooner. With a catalog that eulogizes murdered reggae performers and long-AWOL meth casualties, this is a man whose writing stands out most for its great and curious empathy; when he released a song called “Love Love Love” ten years ago on an album known for its accounts of physical abuse, the most surprising thing about it was how un-esoteric its references to Raskolnikov and Kurt Cobain were. That album, The Sunset Tree, for all intents and purposes, was The Mountain Goats’ “breakthrough” – also its most openly autobiographical work and, until now, its most violent.
John Darnielle and the Mountain Goats have frequently built albums around intense concepts. We’ve gotten records about break-up and divorce. We’ve gone through the pain of domestic violence. We’ve explored addicts and scripture. It makes sense, then, that the group’s latest album would ….
"Some things you will remember / Some things stay sweet forever," John Darnielle sings at one point on Beat the Champ, his 15th full-length album under his long-running band moniker the Mountain Goats. It's a deceptively sunny tip of the hat to his recurring fixation with memory and the ongoing process of understanding and making peace with his own fraught past, here manifested in 13 songs devoted to his childhood spent as a fan of professional wrestling as it existed in the bizarre, pre-Wrestlemania era of the 1970s. Yet, just as Darnielle has previously used sources as diverse as Charles Bronson movies and the Bible as inspiration for lyrics that mix fiction, memoir and reverential observation, Beat the Champ mines an unlikely and, one would think, limited source for surprisingly rich pathos.
I have no idea how many Mountain Goats fans are also into professional wrestling. I assume the percentage is not very high. Those who do like both were probably as excited about the idea of Beat the Champ as I was when it was first announced. As a Mountain Goats fan for 20 years, and a wrestling fan for over 30, I’m amazed that something like Beat the Champ even exists.
Wrestling must be the envy of all professional sports. Not even the NFL, which is nearing $10 billion in annual revenue, enjoys such profound control over its narratives. The insular reality upheld by wrestling’s meticulously scripted matches and storylines is so unique that it merits its own word: kayfabe. Sure, other sports may serendipitously stumble upon a heel like the Bad Boys Pistons or the Broad Street Bullies, but wrestling has heels and heroes ingrained into its DNA.
A bird piercing the sky of Seoul. "Onions growing in the ground." A death metal band that never made it out of the garage. If there's one thing John Darnielle has proven through his career with (or as) the Mountain Goats, it's his ability to turn damn near anything into a source of deeply affecting emotion or insight. With his fifteenth studio album, Beat The Champ, he's taken on his greatest challenge in this regard: making a concept album about semi-pro wrestling in the 1970s and 1980s.
Take it from French philosopher Roland Barthes, who summarized the appeal of professional wrestling thusly in his landmark essay collection, Mythologies. "What wrestling is above all meant to portray is a purely moral concept: that of justice," he wrote. Elemental forces faced off in the form of nearly naked men and women hustling and tussling with each other in the squared circle.
North Carolina-based singer/songwriter John Darnielle has been busy since The Mountain Goats' last album, Transcendental Youth, was released in 2012. In addition to raising two young sons, Darnielle found the time to write his first novel, Wolf in White Van, which was nominated for the 2014 National Book Award in fiction. As if all of The Mountain Goats' previous output wasn't proof enough of Darnielle's talent as a writer, such accolades confirm it.
From 2002's "The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton" to the lauded novel Wolf in White Van, underdog artisans have been John Darnielle's favorite alter egos. His new Mountain Goats set draws its characters from the world of small-time wrestling. Expecting jokes? Think again. A battered dude poignantly remembers golden years ("The Ballad of Bull Ramos"); another prepares to finally reveal his true self ("Unmasked!").
John Darnielle’s follow up to his critically acclaimed debut novel ‘Wolf in a White Van’ is a challenging Mountain Goats concept album focussing on his childhood love of pro-wrestling. The result of this endeavour is ‘Beat the Champ’, an enjoyable if slightly disjointed collection of songs that feature John’s signature witty lyrics and some foot-stomping acoustic guitar. John previously explained that he was going to use his wrestling concept to address themes such as “death and difficult-to-navigate interior spaces.” Despite this ‘Beat the Champ’ as an album can be slightly difficult to navigate, swinging from manic to heartfelt in a matter of minutes.
By now the songwriter-singer-novelist-metal critic John Darnielle has written hundreds of songs. As the Mountain Goats, he's issued dozens of albums, cassettes and 45s since he first started recording music on a boom box in the early 1990s. Under his own name, Darnielle is responsible for the literary novel "Wolf in White Van," about a paralyzed metalhead who conceives a magnificently intricate video game.
opinion by NATHAN WISNICKI The lede here is that you won’t need to know any more than you already do about professional wrestling to enjoy this album on even a surface level. So you can all breathe a sigh of relief, because you probably don’t know anything about professional wrestling and it’d be painful to fake it. I mean, am I out of line by wagering that if you’re a fan of an “indie folk rock” band called “The Mountain Goats,” there’s already like a 79 percent chance you’ve never even watched a wrestling match in your life? I certainly haven’t.
The Mountain Goats — Beat the Champ (Merge)Among his many strengths as a songwriter, the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle’s most keen might be locating and writing about subjects at crisis points in their lives, even when that point is (ultimately) the entire life in question. His skill is such that any Mountain Goats record, from 1991 to now, contains lines and images that can rivet the listener, but some of his best work comes when Darnielle has a particular rubric or focus to base an album around, whether that’s addiction, a codependent couple running each other into the ground, his own life growing up with an abusive stepfather, stories from the Bible, or even just the classic “breakup album. ” And now, wrestling.
Founded in Claremont, Calif., but currently based in Durham, NC, the Mountain Goats are an eccentric bunch to say the very least. Originally the sole domain of its original member John Darnielle, the band’s seen a steady shift in its membership over the years, leaving only a trio left to carry out its mission some 20 years on. Their initial output was mostly of the lo-fi variety — home recordings (on a boom box of all things!) primitive cassettes and 7” singles — but in recent years they’ve grown up and become a full-fledged touring ensemble with a reputable label behind them.
Bookish ex-North Carolina psychiatric nurse John Darnielle has been writing and recording brainy, rickety, resolutely lo-fi indie-folk under The Mountain Goats guise for over two decades now. Chronicling small-town losers, jilted lovers and high school misfits in both unsettling and celebratory fashion, Darnielle’s fifteenth album Beat The Champ sees him and his band turn their attention, for the course of an entire LP, towards the world of American professional wrestling. Concept albums on unlikely subject matter have developed into something of a Mountain Goats speciality.
The words “John Darnielle” and “professional wrestling” wouldn’t seem like a natural pairing, but given that The Mountain Goats’ frontman has recorded concept albums about meth addicts, domestic violence, group homes, and Bible verses, it probably shouldn’t surprise anyone that he’d get around to applying his precisely orchestrated folk-pop to a set of songs about big men in tights. In a way, Beat The Champ is a natural progression from Darnielle’s 2014 novel Wolf In White Van, which followed a game-designer who holds on to his favorite adolescent methods of escape, B-movies and comics. Darnielle has said that Beat The Champ was inspired by his own memories of watching wrestling on fuzzy UHF channels as a boy, and picturing the world beyond the ring.
For the Mountain Goats' new record, prolific songwriter John Darnielle homes in on the world of professional wrestling. This subject matter may have some people turning up their noses, but as Darnielle writes, "Did I steer you wrong with the Bible album [The Light Of The World To Come], even though you may not have been super-into the Bible? Fear not." And you should believe him, because as much as Beat The Champ talks about smashing your opponent with a folding chair and dropping in from a steel cage in San Juan, it's truly about the desire to belong, to be reassured, to understand aging. These themes reveal themselves in a mishmash of styles that feels jarring at times.