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When The Mountain Goats' John Darnielle announced an entire LP exploring the storied subculture of professional wrestling, he gave himself license to vacation in a seemingly limitless world of narratives.
One of Darnielle's defining characteristics as a singer-songwriter is his ability to pile emotions into a story; whether he is establishing relationships or giving life to otherwise lifeless symbols, Darnielle always manages to slip something undeniably human into his songs. As implausible as it might seem to outside observers, the narratives contained in professional wrestling matches embody the same fundamental human spirit found in Darnielle's music. "Beat the Champ," the new pro wrestling-themed concept album from The Mountain Goats, marks the point where both poignant narrative styles converge and become something remarkably human and overwhelmingly real.
Like most children during the mid-to-late 70s, Darnielle took solace in the type of pro wrestling popular in California and Texas, which put a lot of emphasis on things like masks and hair, both archetypes for honor in the Mexican wrestling community in both border states. The colorful displays of machismo these wrestlers put on created a virtually irresistible type of escapism to which both children and adults could succumb. At that point, it mattered very little if you were small or grown, so long as you believed.
And believe Darnielle did. "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero," the LP's first single, tries to capture the childlike wonder with which Darnielle regarded his wrestling idol Chavo Guerrero Sr. Lines like "Look high, it's my last hope" and "I need justice in my life / here it comes," hit home the idea that for a young Darnielle, wrestlers like Guerrero weren't just men play-fighting for a pay day: They were heroes who would go to battle on his behalf, the embodiment of virtue whose physicality transcended even the language barrier. Although his tribute to Guerrero felt incredibly personal, Darnielle spends much of the album assuming different wrestlers' perspectives, trying to get into the heads of these larger-than-life entertainers. Songs like "Heel Turn 2" paint a most vivid portrait of the internal moral dilemma a good up-standing wrestler faces before joining the dark side and becoming a villain. Lines like "Cling to my convictions / even when I get hurt" and "But I tried the losing side / I don't want to die in here" have never made wrestling's fictitious struggle between good and evil sound so real.
Darnielle also tackles a few songs from the perspective of a hardened baddy. The upbeat and jaunty "Foreign Object" makes no bones about doing whatever it takes to pull out that illusive victory, as Darnielle happily proclaims " I personally will stab you in the eye with a foreign object" and "if you can't beat 'em make 'em bleed like pigs!"
For a hardcore wrestling fan familiar with the Southwest territories, Beat the Champ is a veritable goldmine of allusions and nostalgia. But where this LP truly shines is in its appeal to someone who's never watched a wrestling match. Darnielle's masterful storytelling-from his character building all the way down to his incredibly lifelike imagery-makes Beat the Champ a robust and slickly produced piece of work across the board with wrestling serving as the bloody, sweaty glue that holds it all together. Its appeal-much like the world to which it pays homage-is universal.