Although indie rockers The Mountain Goats have changed their sound significantly since their inception, frontman John Darnielle remains just as great a storyteller as ever, as shown in the band’s newest album, Beat the Champ. It has been eight albums and 13 years since The Mountain Goats’ last concept album All Hail West Texas, and this time the album follows Chavo Guerrero, a Mexican luchador who serves as a personification of Darnielle’s memories of watching these wrestlers as a child. “These were comic book heroes who existed in physical space,” he wrote in the promotional copy of Pitchfork Magazine about the album. “I was a child. I needed them, and, every week, they came through for me.”
Beat the Champ cycles between narrative, descriptions of varying wrestling moves, and Darnielle’s childhood memories; it is this cycle that keeps the album fresh. The album opens with the slow, near-ballad “Southwestern Territory” but then dives into the faster paced “The Legend Of Chavo Guerrero.” Darnielle created this album to show his adoration for Chavo, whom he views as a father figure. This idolization connects back to his negative relationship with his stepfather, which was shown in previous albums, as Chavo serves as the father he never had. Wrestling serves as an escape from his strained relationship with his stepfather, allowing Darnielle to enter a world where people are performing just for him, contrasting with the lack of attention he normally receives. This segues into a song about stabbing, which is a recurring theme throughout Beat the Champ. The album moves through the largely forgettable “Animal Mask” into somewhat graphic depictions of wrestling in “Choked Out” and “Heel Turn 2.” The middle of the album is less brash and bold than the beginning, mainly because of the content of the opening songs. The simple story of Chavo Guerrero just isn’t as interesting as chokeholds, stabbings, and hair matches, but then again, what is?
Musically, Beat the Champ is very different from The Mountain Goats’ early albums. It sounds professionally made, featuring brassy, danceable tunes instead of lo-fi, concrete ones. Peter Hughes and Jon Wurster are featured heavily in “Stabbed To Death Outside San Juan,” playing crescendos of organs and strings to great effect. “Heel Turn” features a piano interlude, and it is safe to say that Beat the Champ is one of The Mountain Goats’ most musically complex albums.
Beat the Champ certainly provides flashy entertainment at a cheap price, much like the professional wrestling it depicts. If you can’t afford to shell out for the World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), their ode to professional wrestling puts you right in the ring.