A worthy and welcome addition to an already stellar catalog.
In League with Dragons, the umpteenth Mountain Goats album released in the last three decades, claims to be a concept record. This is something of a mislead as only a handful of the album’s tracks deal with the titular creatures. In other words, those coming to it hoping to hear the aural equivalent of the Dungeons & Dragons-light cover image will be sorely disappointed. As with many concept albums, there is no defined linear narrative to speak of, rather a series of sketches that explore the overarching theme of the album, using the same character (or general characteristics) throughout to illustrate struggles both fantastical and deeply personal.
The title track offers a bit of sprightly folk rock aided immensely by some lovely steel guitar playing (one of the few indications outside the straight-ahead country of “Waylon Jennings Live!” that the album was recorded in Nashville) and Darnielle’s almost hushed, emotionally wrought delivery. It’s a clear highpoint not only on the album but, arguably, within the entire Mountain Goats catalog, and it’s easy to see why it served as Darnielle’s starting point from which the concept spread and morphed into something more than simply a tale of wizards and dragons.
Meanwhile, “Doc Gooden” perfectly captures the struggle of a formerly revered athlete coming to terms with his own obsolescence in the face of a once storied career. “Don’t call it a comeback/ I’ve been here for years,” he sings, before returning to the album’s overarching them with the followup couplet: “Maximum respect to all the warriors/ Who choose to fall down on their spears.” The frantic post-punk stutter of “Cadaver Sniffing Dog” is another highlight, with Darnielle’s penchant for details and the minutiae of daily life helping to lend his lyrics a lived-in quality and photorealistic feel that brings each scene intensely to life.
In League with Dragons’ biggest asset is having Owen Pallett in the producer’s chair. A musical polymath who has released a handful of gorgeous solo records under both his own name and as Final Fantasy, Pallett has become an in-demand instrumentalist, showing up on albums by everyone from Arcade Fire to Lorde to HAIM to Charlotte Gainsbourg to Kimbra. And that’s just within the last two years. This wide-ranging stylistic ability and keen ear help wrap the standard Mountain Goats formula into something much more instrumentally compelling.
As always, Darnielle’s guitar and affectless vocals remain front and center. However, this time around they are surrounded by lush, sympathetic arrangements that help make songs like “Clemency for the Wizard King” far more engaging than it has any right to be. Similarly, the warm keyboards and stark piano lines of “An Antidote for Strychnine” add an emotional heft that Darnielle’s often deadpan delivery can sometimes lack. This is a huge asset for a song like “Antidote,” as its lab rat imagery is hugely elevated by the instrumentation, in this case employing hints of jazz, krautrock and late-night brooding. It’s one of the many instances on In League with Dragons in which the song is made by the arrangement much more so than the lyrics.
In fact, the whole wizards and dragons imagery that crops up throughout would crumble under the weight of its own self-seriousness (see also: “Sicilian Crest,” a song that could easily have found a place on any of Pallett’s solo albums) were it not for gorgeous instrumentation. The “concept” plays more as a hook than as the album’s driving force. A fully-formed album that’s as much about Darnielle’s knotty lyrics as it is the music accompanying it, In League with Dragons is still very much a Mountain Goats album, but one that is far less insular than some of Darnielle’s previous work (not to mention his recent forays into long-form storytelling with Wolf in White Van and Universal Harvester). A low-key affair and by no means the best entry point for those new to the Mountain Goats, it is nonetheless a worthy and welcome addition to an already stellar catalog.