FOLLOWERS of the US indie scene (not the car one, the one with a lot of guitars and beards) know John Darnielle as one of the 21st century’s most enduring and prolific lyricists. They may also know that Darnielle is a huge fan of cult entertainment, what might now be considered “retro”, but was brand new and exciting to him at the time, an unstoppable enthusiasm that comes out in his art. His new novel Wolf in White Van is a love letter to hyper-violent pulp fiction fantasies like Conan the Barbarian, to specialist video stores, to post-apocalyptic adventure games played through the mail.
Now we can add pro wrestling to his list of inspirations with the Mountain Goats’ new album, Beat The Champ, a send-up to ‘70s legends like Chavo Guerrero (brother of Eddie), Bull Ramos and Bruiser Brody, whose grisly murder is the basis for the tense mid-album highlight “Stabbed To Death Outside San Juan”, that mixes the band’s solo-guitar schtick with scratchy strings and the full band that joined him after Tallahassee in 2002.
It’s a testament to the band that they make this music, that sounds so far from what you might hear today’s wrestlers walk out on stage to, so engaging and at times, terrifying. Darnielle has a knack for unleashing venom in his song’s characters, when he wants to; a sense of anger and violence, both past and future, runs through Wolf In White Van and can be found in “Werewolf Gimmick”, a thundering tale of a wrestler who descends too far into his persona. On Beat The Champ, getting stabbed in the eye with a foreign object is as casual as a drive down Grand Avenue in Los Angeles.
And this is the canny juxtaposition of the album; listening to the Mountain Goats feels like a long drive home, their (his) early work somehow feeling intensely specific to one area of Texas, or Florida, but also to the lives of everyone listening. Until someone gets blood on the floor of the ring. “The Legend of Bull Ramos” is a rare country-inflected track, the perfect road-trip anthem about the slow decline in health of a true champ.
He spends as much time on Beat The Champ imagining what life inside the ring must be like, under the lights and among the sweat and blood, as he does in fond remembrance of a time gone by, watching Mexican wrestlers on black-and-white TVs, and making callbacks to 2005’s heartbreaking The Sunset Tree, about his traumatising early life and the eventual death of his stepfather; “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”.
Darnielle started his career recording albums and EPs with boomboxes, the scratchy sound of All Hail West Texas and The Coroner’s Gambit not hindering the emotional impact of his music. Now, with a full touring band behind him, sometimes it stills feels like old times, like we’re in the stadium next to him, cheering for the warriors in the ring.