Saturday, April 25, 2015

Fake it So Real: The Mountain Goats’ Beat the Champ

Roland Barthes famously adjudged professional wrestling to be the “great spectacle of suffering, defeat and justice.” One of the many delights of the Mountain Goats’ new album Beat the Champ is that how it collapses the intellectual gap between the author of Mythologies and a ten-year old kid in central California watching lucha libre with his face pressed up against the screen. “The telecast’s in Spanish, I can understand some/I need justice in my life – here it comes” sings John Darnielle on lead single “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” casting himself back once again to the unhappy childhood he’s been mining for material over twenty-five years as the Mountain Goats’ songwriter and principal musician. But the tone is less petulant or melancholy than exuberant. It’s the sound of a boy in happy thrall to a hero whom he believes can right the world’s wrongs simply by dropping a well-placed elbow off the top rope.

Issues of autobiography aside, Darnielle specializes in characters like the narrator of “the Legend of Chavo Guerrero:” marginalized young men living vicariously through macho role models. These include the wannabe metal gods of “The Best Ever Death Metal Band Out of Denton,” and the disfigured, Robert E. Howard-worshipping protagonist of Darnielle’s eerie and justly acclaimed 2014 novel Wolf in White Van – a psychologically astute portrait of a potentially dangerous lone wolf. The personalities are dark, but Darnielle’s approach to them is illuminating. In both his lyrics and his prose, he has the ability to plunge the listener inside a character’s headspace – so deeply that you can feel the residue when you exit a few minutes later.

At the time of his lo-fi first album, All Hail West Texas, Darnielle used acoustic structures to prop up his verbose story-songs. On more recent efforts like All Eternals Deck and Transcendental Youth, Darnielle and his main collaborators Peter Hughes and John Wurster (of Superchunk and Best Show fame) have gradually expanded their sonic palette to include subtler and lusher shades than the lo-fi stylings of the early recordings, while still finding pride of place for the singer’s aggressively adenoidal voice (he makes Michael Stipe sound like Barry White). The results have been rich and rewarding, and Beat the Champ goes full regalia, laying horns and strings over pianos and guitar riffs, which are either forlornly strummed or else hurtle by in a hurry.

The common denominator between the songs here is not stylistic, then: it’s the subject matter, which, as the title implies, has to do with professional wrestling – not the megabucks-spectacle of the WWE but the smaller-arena shows that have continued to proliferate in its wake. It’s a slightly scuzzy milieu filled with veterans and hangers-on trying to make ends meet, less Wrestle Mania and The Wrestler. The conceit recalls the three albums recorded by the alt-rock supergroup The Baseball Project (which includes Steve Wynn and R.E.M. guitarist Peter Buck), whose Frozen Ropes and Dying Quails included breathless encomiums to Ted Williams, Willie Mays, and Jack McDowell, among others. Some of the figures who wander through Beat the Champ are real, like the aforementioned Chavo Guerrero, whose brother Eddy and son Chavo Jr. attained international fame fighting on pay-per-view in the 1990s while showing off every dirty bingo-hall trick that the older man taught them during his own career. There’s also “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan,” which grimly recounts the murder of the football-player-turned-grappler Frank Goodish (AKA “Bruiser Brody”) and “Luna,” an impressionistic take on the fire that destroyed the home of the late French Canadian star Gertrude Vachon.

The Mountain Goats

Like Grantland columnist David Shoemaker in his excellent 2013 book The Squared Circle, Darnielle recognizes the tension between the “fake” aspects of wrestling and the all-too real violence and despair that engulfs even its most powerful performers; his characters are palpably vulnerable, even if they hide their weakness behind bluster, as in “Werewolf Gimmick,” wherein a fighter gets so excited about his lyancanthropic persona that the promoters ask him to tone it down several notches. (“I wasn’t at rehearsal/I don’t need it anymore.”) It’s an example of Darnielle’s talent for juxtaposing seemingly harmless enthusiasms with darker impulses; just as Jeff and Cyrus in “The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton” contrive a violent revenge plot against the people who told them they’d never be famous (and depending on how you read the song, they do in fact go ahead with it), the “Werewolf” harbors authentically homicidal fantasies under the guise of pumped-up sound bites, leading us to speculate if he’s in fact sociopathically living his gimmick.

In “Heel Turn 2,” the narrator justifies his reasons for turning on his fellow “babyface” tag team partner in mid-match and soaking in the crowd’s disgust. The idea of a good guy suddenly turning bad obviously resonates outside the context of a wrestling storyline, and the long instrumental outro creates a space for intellectual contemplation that’s denied in some of the surrounding rave-ups, like “Choked Out” and “Foreign Object” (which must be the catchiest song ever written around the idea of poking somebody in the eye). The metaphors are even more beguilingly fragile in “Animal Mask,” which is ostensibly about a wrestler coming to the aid of a compatriot during a battle royale but sounds more Darnielle’s strategically mediated reflection on fatherhood – a song that wears its own mask. “Through the noise I hear you call for help/you can’t protect yourself,” he sings gently; “that was when we were young and green/in the dawning hours of our team.” In moments like these, the popular image of Darnielle as a nervy and impervious word-slinger holding the world at bay with his verbiage melts into something considerably more tender – the bruised humility of a man who really has something to lose, and holds it even closer as a result.

- Adam Nayman is a film critic in Toronto who writes for The Globe and Mail. He is a contributing editor to Cinema Scope and has written on film for the Village Voice, L.A. Weekly, Film Comment, Cineaste, and Reverse Shot. He teaches film studies at the University of Toronto and Ryerson University. His first book, It Doesn't Suck: Showgirls, is published by ECW Press.

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