Mountain Goats frontman John Darnielle has never had trouble finding source material for his songs. Over the years, his albums have chronicled a group of young meth heads, the catastrophic implosion of a marriage, a secular reading of the Bible, and even his own childhood with a violent stepfather. For their brand new LP Beat the Champ, Darnielle returns to his youth, but this time focuses on the forgotten small-time pro wrestling heroes of a pre-WWE era. “Everybody’s got their limits,” Darnielle sings on “Choked Out.” “Nobody’s found mine.” He’s talking about a tenacious competitor, but he could just as easily be referring to his own writing.
The Mountain Goats formed in 1991, although its current iteration (featuring bassist Peter Hughes and Superchunk drummer Jon Wurster) didn’t solidify until 2007. Darnielle has been the only constant member, and many of his early releases were recorded on a boombox while he attended Pitzer College in California. He wrote hundreds of songs during this period, putting out several mail order cassette and CD releases each year. Over the years the pace has slowed, but Darnielle’s ability to fit complex characters and story arcs into short, simple songs has only grown. His voice ranges from an intimate whisper to a powerful nasal howl, and his fierce acoustic guitar work forms the skeleton for his narratives.
Beat the Champ lead single “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” has all of this on display. The titular character (“Almost completely unknown, outside of Texas and the West Coast”) was a favorite of Darnielle’s as a child, making frequent appearances at the Grand Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles. Darnielle’s stepfather would often take him to matches there, but would antagonize his stepson by rooting for Guerrero’s rivals. “You let me down but Chavo never once did/You called him names to try to get beneath my skin/Now your ashes are scattered on the wind.” Guerrero’s son, Chavo Jr., became a star in his own right, and Darnielle is envious of the younger wrestler, travelling “coast to coast with his dad at his side.” Wrestling is merely the thread that holds the record together; ultimately, these are songs about the struggles and frailties of the people that populate them--fan club presidents, B-level stars, and little kids.
Beat the Champ finds Darnielle expanding his compositional palette. “Werewolf Gimmick” and “Choked Out” play as classic Mountain Goats songs, but “Foreign Object” stomps with pachyderm saxophones and “Southwestern Territory” is buoyed by warm clarinets. Hissing strings populate the dark corners and jazzy piano chords abound. On this tour, the trio is joined by North Carolina multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas to help realize some of the record’s more complex sounds.
Although they’ve always been underground cult heroes, the band’s audience has grown significantly in the last couple years with the repeated endorsement of blockbuster author and Mountain Goats superfan John Green. Since their last album, 2012’s Transcendental Youth, Darnielle has also become an acclaimed author in his own right. His novel Wolf in White Van was released last September to rave reviews, and it even made the long list for this year’s National Book Award. He’s always had a gift for delving deep into the minds of his characters, and the masterful Wolf allowed him to do so in long form, with spectacular results.
Due to an injury, opening act Ides of Gemini have dropped off of the tour. Their replacement, Cave In lead singer Stephen Brodsky, is American metal royalty. Over the years, the Massachusetts artist has also recorded with Mutoid Man and Converge, and put out a slew of his own releases. His solo sets cover music from across his career in a stripped-down setting.