It bothers me that in 2015, when I tell people that I’m a fan of professional wrestling, I need to attach an explanation. Now The Mountain Goats have provided an explanation beautiful enough to turn all those who see the squared circle as a pit of vacuous machismo driven violence. Their new album, “Beat The Champ” is built around the themes and legends of professional wrestling, and distinguished with front man Josh Darnielle’s masterful storytelling ability.
The album opens with “Southwestern Territory,” a song with the sound of a traditional pop ballad, with Darnielle singing starry eyed from the perspective of the wrestler on the road. It contains that aura of the glitz that comes with entertaining a crowd in a brightly lit arena every night. But present there and throughout the album is the sheer brutality of wrestling, Darnielle’s lyrics never shy in the bloody details. “In the squall of the ringside choir / High as a wire. Nearly drive Danny’s nose back into his brain / All the cheap seats go insane,” reads the second verse; a perfect introduction to the record.
The terminology and dynamic of professional wrestling make up the album’s ribcage. One will find “babyface,” “steel cage” and “sunset flip,” but the record isn’t clogged with references and listeners won’t find it any less accessible than “The Sunset Tree” or “Tallahassee.” One can relate to the somber melody of “Heel Turn 2,” even if they don’t know it describes the moment where a wrestler character goes from a noble hero to a merciless villain, “President of the fan club up there choking on his tears.” “Werewolf Gimmick” is from the viewpoint of wrestler playing a savage beast who gets a little too wrapped up in kayfabe, which is the term for the storyline universe the wrestling takes place in. It’s a mystical bubble in which men become gladiators, and pre-determined match becomes a true myth for the ages. “Beat The Champ” is gloriously awash in kayfabe, with every song told from first person. It shares the effect that many diehard wrestling fans know: when one spends hours diving into the larger than life and bipolar universe of wrestling, they begin to see it everywhere.
Darnielle has stated that the album isn’t necessarily about professional wrestling, but rather using it as lens to describe deep internal struggles. A highlight is “Foreign Object,” livened with a bouncy horn section, with Darnielle gleefully announcing he’s going to stab his opponent in the eye. The term ‘foreign object’ in wrestling refers to any weapon that is not permitted in the match, but there’s little in the song to indicate the fight the speaker is in or the blade he’s using is part of a show card.
Mortality is a recurring theme throughout the record. “Stabbed To Death Outside San Juan” recounts the last moments of the legendary Bruiser Brody, and his murder in an altercation with fellow wrestler Jose Gonzalez. “Unmasked” describes the end of a luchadore’s career as the most important symbol of his being is removed. It’s soft, bittersweet and it’s hard not to think of the closing scene to “The Wrestler” while listening to it.
It’s important to note that the image of wrestling presented in “Beat The Champ” is not the one that most people know of today. There are no allusions to WWE, John Cena or the Monday Night Wars. The only others wrestlers directly referenced are Bull Ramos and Chavo Guerrero Sr., the latter being the subject of a fantastic song where Darnielle describes his childhood infatuation with the medium and idolization of the wrestling icon.
While the lyrics contribute more than the music to the album’s success, it still does a great job at establishing atmosphere, which is always essential for a successful wrestling show. The lonely guitar and strings set the ominous tone for “Stabbed To Death Outside San Juan” and “Choked Out” is as fervent as an ECW crowd. Much of the album has a cruiserweight production, which works in places and not in others. Songs like “Luna” and “The Ballad of Bill Ramos” could have used a little more bulk.
“Beat The Champ” is a concept album with a concept foreign and abrasive to many, but it embraces itself and delivers an enriching experience that should give every listener a taste of thrill that comes with a life in the squared circle. If I ever begin to second guess my love of professional wrestling and all of its wonderful ridiculousness, I’ll remember to give “Beat The Champ” a spin.