Beat the Champ is ostensibly an album about professional wrestling. But in crafting 45 minutes worth of songs about the spandex-clad world of big biceps and bigger egos, bandleader and lyricist John Darnielle has delivered a treatise that transcends the ring: Ultimately, the Mountain Goats’ 15th studio album is about what it feels like to be a human being.
More on all the existential stuff later, but first it seems right to reassure you that there is still more than enough high-flying action to go around.
“Foreign Object” opens in a burst of big, swaggering baritone sax. As the song settles into a loping samba rhythm, Darnielle’s narrator drily declares his intention to “jab you in the eye with a foreign object” and “sink [his] teeth into your scalp.” Ever the multi-tasking professional of performance, he also makes a mental note to get stage blood on the front row and convincingly sell his match-ending leg snapping.
With the jaunty, carefree bounce of a Sesame Street sing-a-long session, Darnielle’s narrator recounts a Herculean effort to rescue his tag-team partner during an 18-man free-for-all cage match. Soothing slide guitar slips under the ropes throughout the song, barely perceptible beneath the chirpy acoustic strums and playful snare brushes.
Darnielle’s lyrics are dense with references to wrestling lingo and lore. Album-closer “Hair Match” refers to the practice, especially prevalent in Mexican lucha libre promotions, of competitors placing their locks on the line should they lose an upcoming bout. “Heel Turn 2” explores a wrestler’s transition to a villainous character, known as a “heel” in the business, before Darnielle’s plucky guitar and warbling vocals cede center stage to a majestic piano outro reminiscent of the coda to Derek and the Dominos’ “Layla.”
“Luna” was inspired by the life of World Wrestling Federation star Luna Vachon, and “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan” recounts the stabbing death of Bruiser Brody, a 6-foot, 8-inch former National Football League player known for erratic behavior in the ring and remembered for his demise at the hands of a fellow wrestler minutes before a match.
But what truly makes this record worth listening to is that you don’t have to know about any of that stuff for these songs to mean something to you. While he’s busy trying to save his buddy, the narrator of “Animal Mask” is rocked by a longing for a time “when were green,” and things were simpler. “The Ballad of Bull Ramos” never once mentions the 350-pounder’s 20-year career in the ring, but rather follows him in retirement. Back home in Houston, Texas, Ramos operates a towing and wrecker service and attempts to ignore the slow deterioration of his body due to diabetes and kidney failure.
In “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” we learn far less about the titular hero than we do a young fan who grew up idolizing him, the song tracing the boy’s path from a wide-eyed kid propped on elbows in front of the TV set to a grown man learning that Guerrero’s son has since become a star in his own right. “My last hope is Chavo Guerrero / coming off the top rope,” Darnielle sings, conveying an acute understanding that the need for childhood heroes, no matter our age, can hit harder than any dropkick or piledriver.

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