If we inventoried a list of things that don’t belong together, it’s likely that indie music and professional wrestling would sit in a comfortable position. John Darnielle and The Mountain Goats, however, seem to disagree. On the band’s 15th album “Beat the Champ,” Darnielle has tapped into his childhood love of large men grappling one another into submission (yes, typing that was weird). But, here we are, with one of the most peculiar indie albums of the year staring us in the eyes with a masked, sweat-drenched face. It’s inventive. It’s brave. Unfortunately, it’s just not particularly consistent. On their 15th album, The Mountain Goats seem more interested in riding the quirk of the album’s lyrics than penning compelling songs. “Beat the Champ,” oddly enough manages a knockout – but not how the band intended. Sporting an unfavorable ratio of misses to hits, the album goes all-in for a pile driver but winds up face planting the floor in spectacular fashion.
The Mountain Goats’ latest record suffers most from the wavering quality of its songwriting. Throughout 13 songs, “Beat the Champ” covers all the indie bases – starry-eyed balladry, up-tempo romps and mild-mannered acoustic dirges. It does these things competently, indifferently and stupidly – sometimes all at once. “Werewolf Gimmick” provides a much needed shot in the arm after a ponderous track, but even the rolling percussion and fiery acoustics can’t save the song from its uninspired sigh of a chorus. It’s the perfect example of buzzkill, captured in a mere two minutes and thirty-five seconds for your listening convenience. “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan” is one of the record’s worst offenders. It’s not at all unreasonable to think one of the longest cuts on the album should spare the courtesy to end on some semblance of a climax. It doesn’t. The song lurches forward with sporadic string runs that punctuate and contrast Darnielle’s nasal yelps. This irritating game of back and forth, admittedly, does get louder, but louder alone doesn’t make for an exciting finish; it makes for a lazy one.
Lyrically, the album treads through stories of muscle-bound braggadocio and untimely demise. Over the album’s 13 tracks, it eventually becomes apparent that this thematic unity, while impressive in how well it’s maintained, reeks of gimmickry. Take “Foreign Object,” for instance, which documents the pre-fight insults wrestlers hurl with reckless abandon. Lines such as “sink my teeth into your scalp, take an icepick bite, save nothing for the cameras, play the angles all night” work well enough as lowbrow black humor, but aren’t exactly highlights of stunning lyricism. Really, it’s a shame; on previous releases the Mountain Goats’ lyrics, while not profound, did manage to conjure some semblance of relatability. Listeners could feel what the band felt. Here, connection is taken to the shed out back and buried. Sure, it’s easy to tell that it’s all meant to be tongue in cheek, but that doesn’t make mediocrity any easier to swallow.
This is The Mountain Goats performing their shallowest songs in years behind a fresh coat of lyrical paint to mask the deficiencies. The joke’s on the band, though, because that fresh coat only works to sabotage the record even further. If this sounds exciting, then by all means, jump right in. I hope that Mountain Goats fans enjoy it. I really do. But when you wind up with your face plastered on the floor, it won’t be anyone’s fault but your own. It’s bad enough that the band’s down there. One embarrassment is enough.; we don’t need any fans down there with them.