I have no idea how many Mountain Goats fans are also into professional wrestling. I assume the percentage is not very high. Those who do like both were probably as excited about the idea of Beat the Champ as I was when it was first announced. As a Mountain Goats fan for 20 years, and a wrestling fan for over 30, I’m amazed that something like Beat the Champ even exists.
John Darnielle has been open about his wrestling fandom in the past, but it’s still not something you expect from such a thoughtful, literate songwriter, or from an award-winning novelist. Again, no knock on wrestling, and I’m a huge fan who watches a few hours a week (and not even WWE, but like New Japan Pro Wrestling and old YouTube clips from Georgia Championship Wrestling and stuff), but I readily recognize how lowbrow and ridiculous the artform can be. It doesn’t necessarily seem like fertile turf for the kind of subtly detailed, psychologically rich pop songs that Darnielle is known for. When I talked to Darnielle about Beat the Champ he praised a notorious Randy Savage promo as a clear example of a guy challenging himself to spin a world-class interview out of a random, mundane object; I don’t think it’s a coincidence that Darnielle has basically done the same with wrestling.
There’s a crucial point to be made, though: the wrestling John Darnielle sings about on Beat the Champ isn’t the wrestling you see on TV today. Before the million-dollar glitz and corporate buzzwords of WWE, back when a network of independent but often cooperative territories covered the entire country, wrestling was both purer and more brutal, a live, bloody performance piece that entranced children and convinced adults to play along with its storylines. Legitimate tough guys and blue-collar brawlers fake-fought each other in small but often packed venues in towns throughout America, moving from one territory to another when the crowd started to get tired of them. It’s a poignant, peripatetic lifestyle that depended on the personal connection between the wrestler and the ticket buyer, not too dissimilar from, say, the popular touring indie rock bands of today.
This is the wrestling Darnielle grew up with, the wrestling that informs the 13 songs on this slobberknocker of an LP. I’m not saying Darnielle draws parallels between his career as a musician and the wrestlers he grew up watching, though. Darnielle digs deeper, finding existential truths in the hardscrabble lives of his heroes. The murder of Bruiser Brody becomes a symbol for both the unpredictability and banality of life, as well as a capstone to one era of wrestling. “Southwestern Territory” taps into the peculiar psychology that drives a man to wrestle for a living—it’s a downcast piano ballad when the narrator sings about traveling between shows, with a heartbreaking reference to the son he clearly doesn’t see enough, but it swells up into a lightly triumphant note whenever he sings about the in-ring action, from climbing the turnbuckle to taking two falls out of three. “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” explains why Darnielle loved his favorite wrestler as a child, returning to the abusive stepfather that has been a presence in so much of his work. “Foreign Object” might be the catchiest song ever written with a chorus about stabbing people in the eye. Throughout the goal isn’t to blindly praise wrestling but to examine the people behind wrestling, both the grapplers themselves and the fans who buy the tickets.
Beat the Champ might wear on you if you aren’t already familiar with wrestling. There’s a decent amount of wrestling jargon peppered throughout the lyrics, and I could see non-fans getting tired of hearing about babyfaces and heel turns and the like. Although the subject matter will be a draw to many, both those who already like the Mountain Goats and others who are simply into wrestling, it’s resulted in a record that’s not as universal as Darnielle’s best work, but also not as personal. It’s an artistic success as a literary exercise, and as a wrestling fan it’s hugely gratifying to see a serious artist that I’ve enjoyed for decades take wrestling seriously, but I could see Mountain Goats diehards filing this one in the bottom half of the band’s catalog, disrespected like wrestling itself.