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A tale to sing

John Darnielle’s escapist new album, “Beat the Champ”

Hazel Sheffield | November/December 2015

John Darnielle has written 525 songs under the name the Mountain Goats, each of them meticulously catalogued at themountaingoats.net. His nerdiness is prized by a cult of fans, who find solace in his tales of mental illness, religion, love and loss, told with poeticism that has earned him a reputation as one of the best lyricists of his generation. Darnielle’s songs sound like short stories, so it seemed natural when he published a novel last year. “Wolf in White Van”, which was later nominated for a National Book Award, is about the rich interior life of a horribly disfigured man. The character was inspired as much by Darnielle’s own struggles as by the patients of a psychiatric unit in California where he worked after finishing school.

“Beat the Champ”, the 15th Mountain Goats album, is also about escape. It’s a concept album about wrestling as a low-budget, working-class entertainment – and an alternate world that Darnielle could disappear into while growing up under the thumb of an abusive stepfather. Again, he reverses the gaze, writing each song from the point of view of a wrestler. “I personally will stab you in the eye with a foreign object, for an object,” he sings gleefully on “Foreign Object”, over brass honks that sound both shiny and sad.

At their best, Darnielle’s songs straddle the divide between patient and caretaker. On “This Year”, the closest he has ever had to a hit (it never charted), he zooms off on a motorbike at dawn to visit a girl, before returning home that evening to greet his stepfather in a “cavalcade of anger and fear”. “I am going to make it through this year, if it kills me,” he sings in the chorus, choosing to focus on the chink of light that illuminates even his saddest songs. In November, British fans will get a rare chance to scream those same lyrics back at him – its own kind of medicine. ~ Hazel Sheffield

Beat The Champ Merge, out now. Mountain Goats tour Britain, Nov 12th to 19th
 

ROCK AT A GLANCE

Julia Holter (touring Europe, Oct 27th to Nov 19th). A graduate of composition, Holter (pictured) writes songs that float on air despite their studied complexity. Her fourth album, “Have You In My Wilderness”, embraces pop hooks; just listen to “Sea Calls Me Home”, whose harpsichords are a slow-motion echo of the Beach Boys’ “God Only Knows”.

Father John Misty (touring Europe, Oct 22nd to Nov 17th). It’s a mystery that Josh Tillman’s ego was ever contained behind the drums in the new-folk band Fleet Foxes. Reinvented as the tragicomic Father John Misty, Tillman is America’s answer to Jarvis Cocker: a ladies’ man with long legs and a way of skewering his subjects.

Jamie xx (touring Europe, Oct 15th to Nov 6th). Another drummer done good, Jamie xx has spent his time since The xx’s acclaimed second album writing a ballet, devising a soundtrack for an art exhibition, and polarising critics with a solo album, “In Colour”. Its joyous track “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” became the song of the summer. ~ HS

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