Since he first started releasing music as the Mountain Goats back in the Nineties, John Darnielle has been putting out albums at the speedy clip of a power-pop tune-machine, even as he explores fully realized concepts that might suck up a decent chunk of a lesser artist’s entire career. His last album, 2017’s Goths, warmly honored that pasty subculture; a year before that he put out Beat the Champ, an LP dedicated to another scene that peaked in the Eighties, pro wrestling’s pre-WWF “territory” days. But you didn’t need to care about Sisters of Mercy or Chavo Guerrero to like either outing because his songwriting is so universal in its smartness, tender irony, underdog passion and musical know-how, touching on genres from harried punk-folk to well-crafted indie-rock to carefully sung piano balladry.
The latest Mountain Goats LP invents a sonically rangy genre Darnielle calls “dragon noir,” a merger of sorts, as the name suggests, of fantasy and crime fiction. It’s less conceptual than thematic, often honing in on tales of heroes gone to seed. It should go without saying that Darnielle, steadfast champion of marginalized music worlds, would never play a song with a Hobbit-rock title like “Clemency For the Wizard King” for laughs. That doesn’t mean these songs aren’t funny, but he brings real empathy and concern to every character he creates.
The title track is a beautifully sad country-folk tune sung in the voice of an over-the-hill wizard, making emo arrangements with himself as he prays for dragon reinforcements to show up and make him look good again in the eyes of the people he can no longer defend. Darnielle works a similar sense of sunset reflection into songs like “Doc Gooden,” which picks up the career of a once-great pitcher as he slogs through his final tour of the majors, and “Passaic 1975,” the grim lament of a Seventies rocker slipping into blood-coughing, lyrics-forgetting self-parody.
Darnielle and his excellent backing band (who recorded the album at Nashville’s storied Blackbird Studios) vary the musical mood gracefully. With a sound that fits its title, “Waylon Jennings Live!” is about an arms and drugs dealer wasted at a casino gig by the outlaw country icon, turning the guy’s next cross-border delivery (“flash drives and firearms”) into a gentle refrain striped with sweet pedal steel. Elsewhere, foreboding turn-of-the-Eighties tom-tom thunder and cocaine-clarion guitar shredding add an extra level of glossy, lurid creepiness to the crime scene urgency of “Cadaver Sniffing Dog.” There’s free-blowing sax magic in “Younger,” and moody organ and flower-jazz flute filigree on “Antidote For Strychnine.”
Releasing an album album called In League With Dragons two weeks after Games of Thrones comes back is pretty decent marketing, as is writing a collection of songs that play with images of damaged, sclerotic heroism at a time when millions of people are sharing religious paintings of Donald Trump. Darnielle would seem to nod cleverly in that decadently apocalyptic direction on In League With Dragons’ epic album-closing lite-prog entreaty “Sicilian Crest,” a rush of billowing piano, gilded synth and spiraling drums that lands somewhere between Yeats’ “The Second Coming” and Genesis’ The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway. Darnielle heralds the impending arrival of a warrior-king sent to redeem us in heretics blood, which we’re only too happy to start spilling in his honor before he’s even made the scene (“Sacrificial victims out of the cage/Smiling as they’re taking the stage,” he sings exultantly). Not a super good sign for the new regime. But if it doesn’t work out, don’t blame me. I voted for the guy bearing the Maltese Crest.