The Mountain Goats – Beat The Champ
John Darnielle and his band The Mountain Goats have had a history of meandering down whatever road strikes his particular fancy at the time – remember the album that was built around Bible verses? – but on Beat The Champ he tackles a subject not often looked at outside of awful nu-metal cheese: professional wrestling.
Music about wrestling is typically aggressive and hyper-masculine, designed primarily to get fourteen year-olds with too much testosterone amped up to watch muscled men drive each other into the mat. No one has ever accused John Darnielle of being aggressive or hyper-masculine, and so Beat The Champ takes a different approach, highlighting the poignancy, the loneliness, the sordid history, and the justice. “The Legend of Chavo Guererro is about the wrestler, sure, but it’s also about Darnielle “lying on the floor…bathed in blue light” watching his hero win and claim the justice he could never claim from his abusive stepfather. “Southwestern Territory” follows a wrestler driving post-match, thinking of all of the things he’s lost; “Choked Out” talks about the violence inherent in wrestling while its protagonist claims that “everyone has their limit / No one’s found mine yet”. That breaking point is found in “Heel Turn 2”, where the titular character finally snaps and does the heel turn – complete with the tears from his fan club president. The newly minted heel cries out that he doesn’t want to die in here, which finds its echo a couple of songs later on “Stabbed To Death Outside San Juan”, which recounts the story of King Kong Bruiser Brody, who was stabbed in a locker room after a match in Puerto Rico.
It’s not all a return journey through the sad landscapes of The Wrestler, though. “Choked Out” and “Werewolf Gimmick” both burn with an intense fire, bringing the clenched-fist testosterone of wrestling to light without devolving into being ham-fisted. It’s more often exhilarating than it is wistful or nostalgic, and as such it’s a more than fitting soundtrack for its subject matter. Not every Mountain Goats album takes it to the mat, but Beat The Champ is one that does, track after track, everytime.