That was a close one. For a second, I thought we might have lost The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle to the world of literary fiction with last year’s Wolf in White Van. It’s a damn fine book, but I needn’t have worried. The Mountain Goats never leave us for long.
Darnielle and company will be back on April 7th with the wrestling-themed Beat the Champ on Merge Records. Just in the nick of time, too. The Goats have been my constant companions and emotional helpmates for the past 20 years. Darnielle’s unfolding discography is like my “Footprints”—the dude carried me.
I’m not the only one who feels this way. At their best, The Goats’ shows are like revivals—lots of joy, lots of unison singing and goddamn if you don’t see at least one person openly weeping. What is provoking all of these troublesome, glorious group feelings? Darnielle’s vulnerable, yet determined singing voice? The forward motion of the guitar-driven rawk? Sure, all parts of the equation, but in the end, it’s about the lyrics.
I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that Darnielle may be one of the best songwriters of his generation. The guy can tell a story, but I don’t think it’s just the narratives that appeal.
He is also a poet, so even if you don’t give a shit about the ostensive subjects of his many, many albums—death metal aficionados, speed freaks, angry divorcees or professional wrestlers, there’s always some perfectly-phrased bit of emotional truth waiting to catch you off guard.
He is proof of the rule that the universal rises out of the specific. Take the song “Matthew 25:21” from The Life of the World to Come. A biographical song about the death of his mother-in-law, it is full of detail—fentanyl drips, Telegraph Road, Tropicana’s on the walkway, but interspersed are descriptions of turmoil that anyone who has ever cared for a dying loved one can relate to:
And I am an airplane tumbling wing over wing
Tried to listen to my instruments, they don’t say anything
People screaming when the engines quit
I hope we’re all in crash position when we hit
Here’s another example.
Take the first track released off Beat the Champ, “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero.” In writing about this song, I could have researched the wrestler and unfogged the grad school part of my brain that remembers reading Roland Barthes’ essay on the subject, but I didn’t need to because of this lyric: “I need justice in life. Here it comes.”
And, holy crap, this one: “He was my hero back when I was kid. 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.” This song is about so much more than wrestling, which, of course, makes it classic Mountain Goats.
If you’re new to the band, I imagine Beat the Champ will be a worthy introduction, and if you get the chance, check out their live show. They’ll be touring throughout the spring and summer, and fancy lyrics aside, if Jon Wurster’s drumming can’t put a smile on your face, then I don’t know what will.