Review Summary: I need justice in my life
A strong argument can be made that a child’s morality is actually far superior to that of an adult’s. Not simply just because a child hasn’t had the appropriate time to potentially compromise their ethics but rather because their moral stance exists purely in two states; right and wrong. That grey area that muddies the two is mercifully absent and this clear distinction of right and wrong is part of why professional wrestling is so appealing to so many boys. Wrestlers are distinctly defined within their world, either they’re the good guy or they’re the bad guy. Over time of course, it becomes clear professional wrestling is scripted (or the word many of the sport’s detractors would use: fake) and that these men and women seen on TV are in fact simply that; men and women, playing a part.
Beat the Champ, the new album from The Mountain Goats, is a concept album that centres on professional wrestling, specifically the highs and lows both in the ring and behind the curtain that accompany such a uniquely taxing career. It’s a spiritual companion piece to Darren Aronofsky’s unflinching and decidedly unglamorous film "The Wrestler" in the way that both are more concerned with the broken bodies and the fraught emotional state the wrestlers often suffer as opposed to the glitzy mythology that often surrounds them. Opener “Southwestern Territory” and “Unmasked” are two hushed, late-night confessions that confirm this stance with the former detailing the strain of constant travelling and the bleak-yet-probable prediction that the performer will “die on the road someday”. The character in the latter, meanwhile, has trouble separating the actual man from his wrestling alter-ego when faced with his reflection in the mirror.
That sense of losing one’s true self inside a fictitious role is a common theme on Beat the Champ. “Foreign Object” is a horn infused promo cut by Darnielle as he forewarns his opponent of all the damage he will inflict, “Choked Out” is an acoustic punk storm promoting a pay-per-view event and “Werewolf Gimmick” sees a wrestler so engulfed by his persona that he believes himself to actually be his werewolf character. Album centrepiece “Heel Turn 2” is the antithesis of these tracks though; the narrator is agonizingly aware of the dangers involved within the ring and is solely concerned with doing his job and living to fight another day regardless of how his fans respond or how his character is expected to act, he exists within that grey area of right and wrong.
Standing in stark contrast to “Heel Turn 2” is lead single “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero”. The song draws parallels between Darnielle’s struggles against his tyrannical step-father and his childhood hero’s triumphs over his enemies with Darnielle “I need justice in my life, here it comes”. Those expecting an album length feud between son and step-father (like previous album The Sunset Tree) may be slightly disappointed that the single is the only song to address the issue but it actually affords the song an emotional weight that may have been diluted otherwise.
There are a few missteps on the album; “Fire Editorial” and “Stabbed to Death outside San Juan” are both instrumentally interesting, the first being a surprising jazz composition and the second featuring brief crashes of sounds against Darnielle’s spoken word tale that make it feel like almost like a radio play, but both lack any interesting narrative. The main problem with the album will be if you simply aren’t engrossed by the concept of the album; a look at the very real and fallible people behind the larger than life icons they portray. Songs like “Animal Mask” and “Luna” are listenable enough but really rely on the listener’s commitment to the idea behind the album to carry them.
Good versus evil is the narrative that drives professional wrestling and is why so many are drawn to it in the first place, the idea of heroes ultimately triumphing over villains, over injustice, is a powerful one and therefore it’s easy to suspend one’s disbelief for a few hours and lose yourself in the fantasy of it all. Beat the Champ however, is a potent reminder that behind the fantasy, behind the heroes and villains stand real human beings, just as flawed and fragile as everyone else.