Mountain Goats leader John Darnielle has recently became more known for his writing than his music, with his debut novel, Wolf In White Van, gaining a host of accolades and rave reviews. But it’s back to the day job as the Mountain Goats return with Beat the Champ, an album of songs all about professional wrestling.
As a fan, Darnielle treats the participants of the songs he is writing with dignity and respect. Indeed many of the songs have an elegiac quality, paying tribute to those who make their living in the squared circle. As Darnielle only watches modern-day wrestling on occasion, these songs deal with his childhood heroes of the early 1980s, and those forced to work for poor money in awful venues.
The album begins with “Southwestern Territory,” wherein a veteran wrestler looks at the difficulties he has constantly travelling and missing his family. He blacks out on TV and tries to remember his daily life in a diary his son gave him, intimating some possibility of brain damage.
“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” is a look at the career of Darnielle’s childhood wrestling hero, one who provides him with his last hope during a difficult upbringing. The song also takes aim at Darnielle’s stepfather, who regularly criticised Chavo.
Heel Turn 2 is an epic ballad which deals with a wrestler’s motivation in turning from a good guy to, well, a heel. As is always the case with Darnielle, it’s the little details of the song that stick out, such as the “president of the fan club choking on his tears” and the new heel watching the trash fall from the rafters.
The album’s masterpiece is the Latin-flavored “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan,” a cathartic look at the last moments of Bruiser Brody, a wrestler murdered in a shower in San Juan. The track begins with a lone acoustic guitar and ends up exploding in noise, as Brody comments that “when the blade hits the bone…no one hears a goddamned thing.”
The final track, “Hair Match” concerns a wrestler who has huge pangs of guilt at having to shave off a lifelong friend’s hair at the end of a match where the loser has to have their hair cut. “I loved you before I even ever knew what love was like,” he informs his opponent, as the crowd either leave or hide behind their programmes or turn away, so horrified by what they have seen.
As a fan of professional wrestling, it is good to see it treated with the respect and complexity it deserves, and Darnielle provides this. Now if only he would start watching wrestling again…