…I mean, sometimes it’s just too goddamn good to be true.
Granted, I think I would have been looking forward to this album regardless: when it comes to amazingly well-written singer-songwriter indie material, the Mountain Goats are long-running veterans, and seem to be taking this time in their careers to venture into the strange nooks and crannies that frontman John Darnielle finds interesting, not just as a fan but as someone looking to comment on those subcultures and eras. He did it in 2015 with pro wrestling and Beat The Champ, he elevated his game to a different dimension with Goths in 2017 – which, for the record, was my top album of that year – and in 2019, the new album was announced to be called In League With Dragons.
Look, I’ve said before that I’m a nerd, and by that I mean I’ve been playing Dungeons & Dragons for about fifteen years across multiple editions. I was a passing fan of wrestling at best, goth culture was something for which I’ve always felt a little on-the-outside-looking-in as much as I’ve appreciated it, but D&D and that brand of fantasy is formative for me, to the point where the stakes were raised before I even heard the album. Now I did trust that they’d do an excellent job – Darnielle is only growing as a writer and this is a band with the pedigree to do this justice – but I also knew that the reason Goths worked and was a little controversial was because of its subversive and deconstructionist side taken to the goth community, and given how close I’ve been to tabletop roleplaying, I wasn’t sure I was ready for this. And I was also wary for the possibility that said dragons could well be a larger metaphor or idea – the track listing seemed to be placing at least chunks of the album in the modern era, which could mean anything. But regardless of those concerns… man, I was excited: so what did the Mountain Goats deliver on In League With Dragons?
So I’ll be blunt: even with the understanding that the Mountain Goats were looking to subvert my expectations, I didn’t expect them to take this path with In League Of Dragons, which has about as much connection with tabletop RPGs and fantasy as I do with political office – tenuous and you can see the parallels and you can even see where it might be a good idea, but it’ll likely never materialize in the way it probably should. And indeed, if In League With Dragons is the third conceptual experiment in the wake of Beat The Champ and Goths, it’s by far the loosest, which doesn’t so much feel subversive but more of a pivot into thematic territory that I myself have explored in my own original work, which is certainly something I didn’t expect!
And you know, I just wish I liked it a lot more than I do – and that’s the other big surprise of this, because with few exceptions, this feels like an album that’s furthest from its central ideas and feels the most diffuse and disconnected, especially when you consider the production. And the bizarre thing is that I’m not even sure if long-time Mountain Goats fans would consider this a return to form, because while this isn’t the tremendous stylistic pivot of Goths, the tonal choices are distinctly different from what you’d hear on previous projects. Yeah, more grounded in guitars both acoustic and electric this time around with the shimmering swells of keyboards serving as melodic embellishments that almost seem reminiscent of post-rock or a distinctly 80s- and 90s-inspired synthpop swell, but between the more developed grooves and tighter percussion, across a fair few of these tracks there’s a sense of tension that never quite releases in a way you’d expect, and that’s before you get songs like the title track where the pedal steel comes in! Now don’t get me wrong, I’m not against a more distinct and diverse sonic palette, especially if the hooks are still here – and for the most part, they are – and not every album can have the command of atmosphere both in concept and execution that Goths did… but then you start noticing how if you’re going to have an album even with a passing relationship with fantasy storytelling and none of the tracks really hit that epic swell as big as they could, it feels like a real missed opportunity – yeah, the closing track ‘Sicilian Crest’ gets close, but it’s no ‘Rain In Soho’. And while we’re in this territory, we should talk about the production, which in comparison with every Mountain Goats album since 2005 is not produced by Scott Solter or Brandon Eggleston, instead being given over to Owen Pallett. Now this wouldn’t normally be an issue: Pallett has done arrangements for the Mountain Goats before and it’s generally accepted that John Darnielle would have a heavy hand in whatever was done… until you see interviews where he’s indicated he took less of a heavy hand in tonal choice and production, and sadly you can tell. The lack of epic swell, that might be one thing, but the flattened pickup and vocal clipping on the piano ballad ‘Possum By Night’ and ‘Going Invisible 2’ is inexcusable, and that’s before you get to how the acoustic blending can feel really inconsistent with the strumming almost sounding too crisp right at the top of the mix. And I shouldn’t have to say this, but there’s a difference between sounding lo-fi and just slapdash mixing, and this falls in the latter category, especially when these are not complex, overly layered mixes to work with!
But that’s not saying there aren’t great tunes or hooks here – Darnielle is right to call out how strong the grooves are on this project, but when you have the Steven Wilson-esque ‘Younger’, the utterly infectious ‘Waylon Jennings Live!’, the phenomenal melodic passage driving ‘Doc Gooden’, even the guaranteed sing-a-long that is ‘Passaic 1975’, there are a selection of pretty phenomenal songs. But then we have to get to the lyrical content, and let’s start with the implicit question that Darnielle frames: namely, the hero narrative, often at the core of so much of fantasy literature and iconography and that he’s going to frame with all of the humanistic flaws and foibles that has made his writing so gripping for years. Sure, there are songs he’s described as being rooted in a fantastical rock opera, about an aging wizard facing an invasion and his very likely comeuppance, but he’s also not about to shy away from including the people who might seem to be wielding a certain amount of ‘magic’ in their own rights: ‘Doc Gooden’ is a song telling the story of the titular pitcher who threw a no-hitter long past his prime, ‘Passaic 1975’ is written from the perspective of Ozzy Osborne mid-tour in the 70s, and ‘Waylon Jennings Live!’ is from the point of view of an arms dealer watching Waylon play his ass off in a casino and just drinking in the fleeting dream. And a few things become apparent about these heroes very quickly: they’re nearly all past their prime; their ‘magic’ has taken a very real toll on their bodies; and on some level they’re self-aware enough to realize the price they paid for their magic, but not self-aware enough to dull their bitterness in being lonely or forgotten, hoping for one last moment to seal their legacy.
Now this demystification is expected, and where I’d argue there’s the most potential for great, humanistic storytelling – heroes past their time trying to cling to relevance and past glories as they look to face yet another dragon, and then drilling into why they would even want to, that’s powerful stuff. And I know that because… well, I wrote a similar arc in my book To Kill A Dragon, which might focus a little more on the motives behind the act of heroism rather than the status of hero itself, but it’s similar territory. And there’s so many great details in that deconstruction: I love how ‘Younger’ is such a haunted song and ends with a very Bowie-esque sax solo, I love how ‘Possum By Night’ writes from the smallest of creatures and gives them a completely sincere battle cry, I love the pattern of rich baseball details on ‘Doc Gooden’, and ‘An Antidote To Strychnine’ is a potent slow burn that shows the poisoner – characteristically the anti-hero – still striving to deliver something of good. But where things get a little frustrating for me is the suspicion that while Darnielle likes to use heroic iconography and framing to give these great men weight, more than most he’s also trying to deflate our expectations in them, level the field almost to the point where heroes would be erased. The title track is the first obvious hint of this in showing how pitiable the lone hero’s blaze of glory can seem from the sidelines, but the more blatant cut is the closer ‘Sicilian Crest’, which in pulling from garish 80s synthpop and the most propulsive groove on the album as a call for a hero… the primary symbol is rooted in Italian fascism. And what’s exasperating is that Darnielle’s not even wrong about this, because a lot of medieval hero-worship in traditional fantasy would be seen as having fascist tendencies outside of it, and commenting on that cult of personality isn’t wrong – and it’s important to highlight how he doesn’t spare himself, as ‘Going Invisible 2’ is all about how new creations are always built on the backs of what was created before, and there’s something profoundly self-serving in burning it all down again and again. But that leads to real tonal and thematic dissonance where at its most earnest moments, this album wants to under the raw emotionality that places us there – it can read as very Last Jedi, if that makes any sense.
And yet here’s what’s missing: the alternate, and I’m not just talking beyond the previously sidelined anti-heroes of ‘An Antidote to Strychnine’ and ‘Waylon Jennings Live!’. No, what Rian Johnson understood with The Last Jedi is that there was a broader, universal brand of heroism that had value, and what’s exasperating is that I only need to look at tabletop roleplaying games to point to a setting that drives that deconstructive point home all the more starkly: Dragonlance. Yeah, professional literary critics might scoff at books coming off the TSR mill to feed the fluff books of AD&D campaigns in the 80s and 90s, but when viewed critically today, Dragonlance was a deconstruction of traditional fantasy archetypes that allowed a more humanistic view of the hero’s journey and wrung out so much honest emotional power along the way – and no, it’s not just because this was formative fantasy for me growing up, most of the original books hold up! Yeah, the setting has been abandoned for years by Wizards Of The Coast, but if we’re looking for the thematic followthrough that In League With Dragons doesn’t quite deliver, it would have been that, and for as much as Darnielle clearly gets the emotive power of heroism, I wish he had been able to complete the framing of the alternative. So coming back to the album… look, it’s so well-written and distinctive that I’m always inclined to praise it highly, but between some real production missteps and the frustrating thematic issues that for audiences who can follow along will wind up dissatisfied, because even for albums like Beat The Champ and Goths at their most deconstructive, they fused that commentary with their most glorious moments that had the purity to transcend. In League With Dragons doesn’t quite have that, which means for me, it’s an extremely light 8/10, mostly propped up by great writing and better individual hooks and grooves than it’ll probably get credit. Definitely worth a lot of listens, but like The Last Jedi, it might fall short of your expectations or wind up satisfying them all? Give it a chance, check it out.