“Some things you will remember/Some things stay sweet forever,” the Mountain Goats sing on “Animal Mask” off their new record Beat the Champ. A quirky, lovable collection of oddball beauties, Champ is a record that’s a joy to listen to from beginning to end. It’s warm, but dark, and simple, yet intricate. An ode to old fashioned wrestling as told through personal tales of love and loss, nostalgia runs deep here, but it tastes bittersweet.
The lyrics of “Animal Mask” perfectly encapsulate this feeling of longing for a different time. Front man John Darnielle’s sweetly clear voice is full of a kind of gentle pain. It’s restrained, but you can sense it. Similarly, “Luna”, another quieter track on Beat the Champ cuts deep. Playing out like a slow motion match in the ring, the guitars on this one will break your heart in two. “Stay free, stay free/…Stay on my guard/burn hard/rage on/all gone,” Darnielle sings softly, but with so much purpose. “Luna” feels like both a triumph and a surrender, and sometimes both at the same time.
“Dad fought many bloody battles/And he raised four sons” Darnielle sings on “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”, a song for a Cinderella-like hero through the eyes of a childlike narrator. Many songs on Champ sound as though they’re being told from the perspective of a young kid with a larger-than-life imagination before life inevitably lets him down.
You could easily call Beat the Champ a “concept album”. There’s a heavy theme, with songs like “Choked Out”, “Heel Turn 2”, “The Ballad of Bull Ramos” and “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan”, and countless tales of Southwestern wrestlers from yesteryear. But for Darnielle, these characters are a way to tell more intimate stories from his youth, about the people he looked up to and the ones who disappointed him. Sure, there’s a subtle cartoonish flair, but truly, much of Champ is very sad.
Darnielle’s folksy vocals are almost contrasted with the sometimes vigorous instrumentals. “Werewolf Gimmick” is intense and passionate, and Darnielle sings it that way against trembling, ominous guitars. “Nameless bodies in unremembered rooms/…Get lost inside my thoughts and nearly tear his face to shreds/…Bring your heroes to the wolf den/Watch them all get crushed,” he spits. It’s moments like these when it’s clear the graphicness of the wrestling matches is a metaphor for learning to protect yourself; to be your own hero.
Beat the Champ is a fascinating record from a strange and wonderful band. It’s imaginative and original, and it’s not something you can listen to absentmindedly. The songs on Champ will make you feel things, and likely rustle up some emotions you’ve kept buried. It has that power—that intrigue—about it. It’s both personal for Darnielle, but also accessible to anyone who has moments from their childhood that traumatized them or left them feeling jaded and sad. It awakens these demons in us, but cathartically, making them feel fresh again, but in a time when we’ve grown into untouchable adults.