Review Summary: What in me is dark / Unmask, what is low tag in and support / That, to the height of this great Mania / I may assert th'Eternal Champion, / and justify the ways of kayfabe to man.
There’s a wonderful tweet that periodically makes its way onto my timeline: "Welcome to Twitter. Here is your copy of the Communist Manifesto and a season pass to Monday Night RAW for some reason." Like most great jokes, it's based on a nugget of truth - Twitter has a lot of radical leftists and a lot of passionate wrestling fans, and these groups often intersect, stereotypes be damned. For much of my life, I didn't think much of wrestling, and couldn't understand what about it captivated the brilliant, funny people I would joke and talk politics with. Beat the Champ
is a concept album about wrestling composed by a brilliant, funny man named John Darnielle that, to paraphrase Milton, justifies the ways of kayfabe to man.
When Beat the Champ
talks about wrestling, it's not narrating the deeds of famous wrestlers. Rather, it channels the narratives of the lives they led outside of the sport, the roles they played within it, and what those roles mean to the people who watch it. Three songs illustrate these three perspectives.
An aged ex-wrestler wanders through life trying to find meaning in "The Ballad of Bull Ramos", a folk-country romp. It's based on a true story - there really was a Bull Ramos, he really did wield a bullwhip, and he really did lose a leg, a kidney, and his eyesight at the hands of diabetes. Although Ramos is at his happiest when a doctor recognizes the man he once was (his answer "yes sir, that’s me, I'm him" reveals the distance between himself and "him"), even as his health continues to fade he is content in the knowledge that some aspect of him will live on through his trademark bullwhip. In contrast, "Werewolf Gimmick", a vicious uptempo folk rocker, finds a combatant in the heat of the fight, losing control of the boundary between himself and his assumed role as he faces his opponents. His wrestling persona, or gimmick, is that of a werewolf, but as the song progresses the metaphors whereby his actions in the ring are compared to the way a fictional werewolf might handle his prey become less fantasy and more reality. Just as a werewolf transforms from man into monster at the light of the full moon, this character, too, loses his humanity under the stagelights illuminating him in front of the crowd. Even if he has someone waiting backstage telling him to "maybe dial it back", for those brief moments he's fighting, it might as well be real. The album’s lead single, "The Legend of Chavo Guerrero", touches on all of these themes, and while it might ostensibly be about Chavo, the song's real narrative concerns John himself. He waits till the middle of the night to catch low-quality Spanish language feeds of Chavo’s fights, but these aren't just fights - they're a way for John to experience justice in a world where his grim reality is an abusive stepfather. Chavo’s victories are his victories, and Chavo’s enemies are his enemies. The lines in the song's third verse epitomize his personal connection with the wrestler and his adoption of Chavo as an avatar through whom John can transcend himself: "He was my hero back when I was a kid / You let me down but Chavo never once did / You called him names to try to get beneath my skin / Now your ashes are scattered on the wind".
Musically, Beat the Champ
continues the trend the Mountain Goats
had been developing of embracing a bigger sound and expanding upon the simple acoustic guitar roots at their foundation. "Foreign Object" even features a full-bodied horn section, a proposition perhaps heretical to Goats fanatics of decades past. Darnielle's attempts to broaden his style are not uniformly without error, and the instrumentation at times comes together poorly, but his unique personality threads a needle through the album, much as it has throughout his career.
The truth is, it doesn't matter if wrestling is scripted entertainment. The stories it tells can be their own realities unto themselves, and the meaning people find in it is an undeniably genuine one. Beat the Champ
is a vindication of these realities and that meaning.