‘Beat the Champ’ Rings True
Daniel O'Boyle | Monday, April 13, 2015
A Mountain Goats album is almost never just a collection of songs. Almost every work by John Darnielle’s project has been a concept album focusing on themes such as a troubled marriage or Darnielle’s youth. On “Beat the Champ,” the latest Mountain Goats offering, there’s a new focus: the world of professional wrestling.
It seems an odd choice to focus on, but it’s just another of a new “wrestling renaissance.” Once mocked as childish and not a “real” sport, it seems to have found a new lease of life in recent years. Many fans see it more as an ensemble drama that can tell many stories at once, with actors performing circus-like feats of athleticism. “Beat the Champ” coincides with the move of wrestling back towards the direction of its glory days, before All-American heroes defeated bizarre foreign stereotypes every week and ridiculous soap-opera storylines took over.
Darnielle takes the listener back to a time when wrestling was truly a theatrical drama. Clean-fighting, popular “faces” would wrestle against cheating “heels.” It was simple, but the heroes and villains were memorable, and their stories were always entertaining. It was still adored by children — Darnielle himself admits he grew up on it — but there was something deeper in the stories and in the real lives of the wrestlers that made a truly lasting impression on the songwriter.
On “Beat the Champ,” Darnielle manages to tell some of those stories and show the deeper message beneath. On “Foreign Object,” the catchiest song on the album with an entertaining horn accompaniment, he sings as a wrestler resorting to underhanded tactics as he uses his last ounces of energy in a certain defeat. The song’s still just about a performer in a fight that isn’t real, but lines like, “If you can’t beat ‘em make ‘em bleed like pigs,” offer the dark wisdom that earlier Mountain Goats albums are famous for.
Perhaps the most clear message in “Beat the Champ,” though, is about father-son relationships. Pro wrestlers embody masculinity and heroism; every father hopes their son will see them like they see their wrestling heroes. The stereotypical claim of “my dad could beat up your dad,” or “my dad’s Hulk Hogan” are a reminder of how wrestling, masculinity and fatherhood are tied together.
In “Beat the Champ,” Darnielle’s abusive stepfather — the subject of many Mountain Goats songs before — always seems to be in mind. In “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” Darnielle tells the story of his childhood wrestling hero. To the young Darnielle, everything’s so black and white: Guerrero is the good guy, his opponents are the villains. His stepfather, on the other hand, can’t compare to the wrestler. Singing, “You let me down, but Chavo never did,” Darnielle shows exactly why wrestling meant so much to him in his youth and why it’s still important enough for him to sing about today.
Much of the rest of the album focuses on life on the road for wrestlers. Opener “Southwestern Territories” tells of travelling to cheap venues to fight friends or take falls. Again, there’s a reference to fatherhood, but it’s closer to reality than Darnielle’s childhood dreams. The busy schedule and regular defeats for a struggling professional are contrasted with the dream of Guerrero as a father-figure saving the day. “Choked Out” tells of a wrestler who’ll go to any lengths in a fight to earn the money to feed his family. The little-known wrestler at the bottom of the bill fighting to put food on the table is perhaps even more of a hero than stars like Chavo.
Wrestling in the 1970s might have been a tale of heroes and villains, but in “Beat the Champ,” Darnielle reminds us that heroes of our youth are people just like us. Behind the simple “good versus evil” stories of wrestling, there’s so much more.