Douglas Martin got a jazz guitar, got a brand new car.
John Darnielle is a writer who traffics in characters bound by subcultures. His first novel, a rare foray into fiction via the famed 33 ⅓ series, was a take on the psychiatric system and one boy’s obsession with Black Sabbath’s Master of Reality. Darnielle has written albums loosely based on the stories and teachings of the Bible. Moreover, subcultures exist within the Mountain Goats’ world. You don’t have to be a scholar of the infamously doomed Alpha Couple to enjoy 2002’s Tallahassee.
Beat the Champ is about wrestling, sure, but like every Mountain Goats album, it’s about people. It’s about their aspirations, their hopes, their fears, the moments that make them.
A lonely night drive. A red-eye from Texas. “I try to write in the diary that my son gave me.” Waiting to get your name called from the booking sheet. John Darnielle presents snapshots of the mundane existence of wrestlers before they’re bathed in flashbulbs and spotlights in the middle of the ring. “Southwestern Territory” captures moments in these performers lives ESPN 30-for-30-style, replete with lounging pianos and slightly melancholy woodwinds. You could almost see the video treatment for the song involving people moving in slow-motion, resplendent in black-and-white film.
“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” appears in the form of jaunty, casual biography written in the kind of tone you’d talk to your friends in, when they ask you who your favorite wrestler is. Sometimes it feels like the official currency of wrestling is nostalgia, as many of us have fond memories of being taken to Wrestlemania or an armory on the edge of town that housed a wrestling ring on Friday nights. When Darnielle sings of his childhood hero getting justice on diabolical heels, whose death Darnielle would pray for nightly for drawing the ire of his hero.
The bond between a child and good-guy pro wrestler cannot be overstated, as it’s such a profound display of morality kids can learn from through the guise of sweaty dudes wrestling in underpants. John Darnielle had the same connection with Chavo Guerrero that many of us had with Hulk Hogan or Sting, or that our (potential and actual) kids have with John Cena. Every kid needs a hero, and pro wrestling is still a moral universe, rife with heroes and villains, and those who exist in the margins in between.
In the midst of werewolf characters taking their gimmick a little too seriously and the gravest-sounding luchas de apuestas match of all-time, Beat the Champ is multi-character study within the famed territorial era of wrestling (the pre-Hulkamania/Rock ‘n Wrestling years), when the genre was first gaining television exposure, but was still resolutely local. It was still a profoundly gritty art form, as allusions to Abdullah the Butcher (“Foreign Object”), a post-retirement Bull Ramos (“The Ballad of Bull Ramos”), the last days of Bruiser Brody (“Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan”), the fire that destroyed Luna Vachon’s house (“Luna”) and the original Sheik (“Fire Editorial”) are all taken into Darnielle’s first-person character analysis with verve and empathy, two qualities that have always been paramount to Darnielle’s songwriting.
The masterful “Heel Turn 2” displays Darnielle’s gifts as a songwriter and his understanding of the human psyche. At first, the song follows a character who is fundamentally good, who fights for righteous causes, but contains a little self-doubt as to whether or not he can hack it as a wrestler who always follows suit. There’s a slow sea change that happens during the song; as it progresses, the character sees ignoring the fans’ goodwill as a safeguard against becoming gravely injured.
The chorus, “I don’t wanna die in here,” goes from “I don’t want to get hurt doing following my ideals” to “I don’t want to get hurt fighting for good all the time” all the way to the other side, to “I’m going to do whatever I have to do to get ahead, but I don’t want to get hurt when these fans start rioting at the sight of my face.”
This is like a year of a wrestling character’s lifespan being condensed into a six-minute song, and it’s massively affecting as a human being to listen to those gradual changes happen so quickly.
John Darnielle is a writer who excels in the language of emotion. There are many writers who are technically fascinating, who write dizzying, excellently worded works with compelling characters, but don’t quite connect to their characters’ core emotionally (Jonathan Franzen is the first name that came to mind as I was writing this). Darnielle, both as a novelist and as songwriter of the Mountain Goats, has excelled in making you feel the characters in his songs and stories.
That’s why he can write an album about wrestling and make it a compelling piece of art, because regardless of what you think as far as wrestling being a compelling piece of art, Darnielle has harnessed an amazing level of empathy for his characters, regardless of what they do. It just helps that wrestling characters and the people who play them are often so interesting, their stories sound so amazing coming from a good writer, so much as that it doesn’t matter how much interest you have in the product. That’s why so many people have such an emotional attachment to the things Darnielle writes, because he’s almost preternaturally in tune with human emotion. And wrestling is a genre at its best when your emotions are tied to the outsized characters, where you want to see them finally get the win over the enemies who cheat to win over them, or who brutalize them repeatedly. Wrestling at its best is a truly emotional art form, which is why the Mountain Goats are the best band we have to traverse the complexities of that world.