New Music: The Mountain Goats — “Beat The Champ”

Joe Kellen

Today marks the release of the 15th Mountain Goats record, “Beat The Champ.” The 13-track effort combines the mythos of old-school professional wrestling in the Southwestern United States and the emotional punch of John Darnielle’s narrative songwriting. “Beat The Champ” finds the repertoire of Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes and drummer Jon Wurster sounding as mature as ever. The trio tackles tracks that range from woodwind dusted piano ballads to throaty, savage anthems with style. In fact, it’s clear this album achieves a level of sonic cohesion the Goats haven’t reached before — the brassy belch of “Foreign Object” is a far cry from Darnielle’s early string-pounders. Hughes remembers the pressure of recording their first plunge into a “full-band” dynamic, 2002’s ”Tallahassee.” “I was really like, ‘C’mon, dude, let’s swing for the fences,’” he said. “It may have been our only chance to do something like this.” Two weeks after Hughes officially joined the band in 2001, British label 4AD offered Darnielle and Hughes an opportunity to record the album. Since the Goats’ inception in 1991, Darnielle mainly performed solo (at times with childhood friend Rachel Ware,) recorded into boomboxes or home recording devices, and peddled cassette tapes with hand-drawn artwork. The prospect of producing a slick record with a sizable label potentiated a new dawn for their established lo-fi sound — Hughes said Darnielle was timid to alter his aesthetic at first. After some time to mull it over and get comfortable in the studio, however, the duo churned out a haunting powerhouse of a record that remains a fan favorite. Since then, the now-trio has worked with a number of collaborators. From adding Wurster on tour in support of 2006’s “Get Lonely” to jazzing the canvas with Matthew E. White on 2012’s “Transcendental Youth,” The Mountain Goats continue to give the project nuance at their own pace. “Beat The Champ” is evidence that the band is more willing than ever to take risks: foamy mouthed near-punk, twangy sentiment and two-and-a-half minute piano odysseys all find a home on this album. What makes the record truly pop, though, is John Darnielle’s crisp observations and effortless storytelling. Darnielle uncovers shades of emotion rarely associated with spandexed wrestlers and shines raw, hot light on the universal themes within them. At the same time, of course, he leaves room for the blood curdling shriek of ringside bravado. Even then, the radical empathy — admittedly a borrowed term from another critic too accurate to ignore — of The Mountain Goats resonates with power.