Beat the Champ isn’t Darnielle’s “wrestling album” in a novel sense; it’s just a good Mountain Goats album, and the world could always use another one of those.
On the surface, it doesn’t seem like professional wrestling would be a topic for John Darnielle to cover. However, the Mountain Goats mastermind has made his love of the sorta-sport known on social media, so in that light, Beat the Champ seems like something of an inevitability in Darnielle’s discography. Throughout his career, Darnielle has dabbled in the sort of high drama that is part and parcel with how professional wrestling tells stories. Of course, the stories beyond the ring can be just as sweeping and dramatic as the ones in it, which is something that Darnielle understands very well. Thus, Beat the Champ is mostly about professional wrestling, but it’s also about something much larger, a feeling of grandeur and misery magnified and exaggerated in a way that only Darnielle can pull off without coming across as cheesy.
Darnielle’s too smart an artist to make music that’s too niche, so Beat the Champ focuses more on higher pursuits than glory in the squared circle. Like most of his work from The Sunset Tree onward, Beat the Champ focuses plenty on his early life and difficult upbringing. However, while earlier works examined the tragedy of Darnielle’s childhood, this album chooses to look at how the young songwriter grappled with those trials through his wrestling heroes. In lesser hands, a song like “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” would become mere biography, but Darnielle digs deeper to explore the reasons why he idolized the Mexican-American grappler as a child. Like much of his best work, Beat the Champ doesn’t turn its focus on one emotional state, choosing instead to examine the array of feelings that comes with being alive. Beat The Champ is alternately silly (“Werewolf Gimmick”), angry (“Foreign Object”) and mournful (“Luna,” “Southwestern Territory”). The concept, then, becomes less of a concept and more of a critical lens, a way for Darnielle to hone in on the roots of the passion that drove his love of wrestling during childhood.
Musically, not much has changed on Beat the Champ, nor does much have to change. The Mountain Goats has always been about simple arrangements, and though each album adds or subtracts some sort of peripheral sound (the horns on Transcendental Youth, the electric guitar on Heretic Pride), the basic setup of guitar, drums and occasional piano serves Darnielle’s stories well. If there’s anything different about Beat the Champ, it’s that the Mountain Goats has a much looser feel this time around. At times, they edge perilously close to jazz; you can sense that they want to let loose and improvise a little, but Darnielle ropes everything in to keep the focus on his lyrics. That’s largely a smart move on his part, but it also feels like a lost opportunity. It would have been nice to hear Darnielle take that chance on a Mountain Goats record.
Ultimately, though, there’s a lot to like about Beat the Champ. Despite the window dressings made of luchador masks and championship belts, it’s still very much a Mountain Goats album, filled with the sort of clever, literate, emotional musings that we’ve come to love about John Darnielle’s work over the years. Even the concept—which admittedly could have been seen as something of a desperate attempt to keep things fresh—works well without overpowering the core of what makes the band work. Beat the Champ isn’t the Darnielle’s “wrestling album” in a novel sense; it’s just a good Mountain Goats album, and the world could always use another one of those.