Release Date: Apr 26, 2019
Record label: Merge
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock
John Darnielle's greatest talent is his ability to create characters; he can draw a compact but vivid portrait of a person's life in a small space, and he's put that skill to good use as both a novelist and as a songwriter. Given his fascination with the lives of others, it makes a certain sense that he was once an avid fan of multiplayer role-playing games, in particular Dungeons & Dragons, where one can build a fresh identity of their own, and this passion provides the backdrop for 2019's In League with Dragons. However, though Darnielle initially described the project as a "partial rock opera" about a small town ruled by a wizard and bedeviled by dragons, somewhere down the line he started following other paths, and this album's strongest debt to D&D comes in the way the stories and the people who populate them can change with the roll of the dice.
"Old wizards and old athletes are the same," John Darnielle said during a Facebook live stream at the headquarters of Wizards of the Coast, the game company that owns Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. He was there to announce the latest record from the Mountain Goats, In League With Dragons, and his rhetoric was appropriately fanciful: "They were once magic," he offered by way of explanation. He roughly meant that fallen wizards and washed-up athletes shared the same mythological powers; they once stood in as folk heroes and beacons of hope.
Following 2017's rightly lauded Goths, John Darnielle and his band The Mountain Goats return with a new LP, produced by the always magnificent Owen Pallett, and, to some unknown extent, telling the tale of a seaside community ruled over by a kindly wizard. For an artist who's created records around the world of professional wrestling, The Bible, and a deck of tarot cards, this shouldn't be too much of a challenge— Darnielle has always had a gift of incisive insight that he appears to be able to overlay and make relatable, regardless of subject matter. Everything The Mountain Goats make sounds wonderfully like an overheard diary entry, dragons be damned.
In League with Dragons continues John Darnielle's trend of using The Mountain Goats to examine specific subcultures that he's been fascinated by/participated in, with NPR announcing it as a "Dungeons & Dragons-Inspired Album". It's only appropriate that it's produced by Owen Pallett, a man who previously performed under the moniker Final Fantasy. But it has a far more tenuous connection to its concept than Beat the Champ had to wrestling or Goths had to, well, goths.
At first, it might seem intimidating to jump into the scrupulous mind of John Darnielle. The literary-minded singer-songwriter will tackle ambitious album concepts that target specific niches—pro wrestlers, goths, the Nicene Creed, Tarot cards, and so on. Any topic presents a possibility for Darnielle—he'll research any subject to better infuse his stories with accurate references.
The Lowdown: Though he’s only recently found acclaim as a novelist, John Darnielle has always been a storyteller. From the toxic voyeurism of the Alpha Couple on down, Darnielle’s most rewarding work as the Mountain Goats often comes at the end of a narrative thread. Recently, that thread has also run through thematic explorations of Darnielle’s youthful obsessions; after paying homage to bygone wrestlers on 2015’s Beat the Champ and reckoning with their Bauhaus years on 2017’s Goths, the Mountain Goats now deliver the third entry in this nerdy triptych with In League with Dragons, a record of “dragon noir” inspired by Dungeons & Dragons.
If you've spent any time around here, you know the Mountain Goats easily coast into a slot in my list of all-time favorite bands. Every album they've put out since I've been on staff here has made my year-end lists, and I wrote the reviews for Sunset Tree, Get Lonely,, Transcendental Youth and Beat the Champ. Julie Rivers reviewed the last one, the fantastic Goths, which grabbed my #1 slot on my 2017 list.
T he extraordinary career of John Darnielle - not just an astoundingly prolific musician, but also a podcaster, a novelist and a metal fan so devoted he wrote the 33.
Concept albums and The Mountain Goats go hand in hand. 'All Hail West Texas' was about residents in Texas, 2015's 'Beat The Champ' was about professional wrestling, 'Goths' was about teenagers listening to The Cure, Bauhaus, and Siouxsie and the Banshees. In true Mountain Goats fashion 'In League With Dragons' is, and isn't, a concept album. The story goes that when main Mountain Goat John Darnielle decided to use Owen Pallett as a producer he sent him a selection of songs to see if he was interested.