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The Mountain Goats - In League With Dragons Music Album Reviews

John Darnielle explores the humanity of wizards, sports legends, Ozzy Osbourne, and other folk heroes and beacons of hope.

“Old wizards and old athletes are the same,” John Darnielle said during a Facebook live stream at the headquarters of Wizards of the Coast, the game company that owns Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. He was there to announce the latest record from the Mountain Goats, In League With Dragons, and his rhetoric was appropriately fanciful: “They were once magic,” he offered by way of explanation.

He roughly meant that fallen wizards and washed-up athletes shared the same mythological powers; they once stood in as folk heroes and beacons of hope. Their might came not only from their skills, but their lore, stories that blurred the line between the possible and the absurd. On In League With Dragons, Darnielle gives credence to these fantasies, stepping into the minds of the athletes, rockstars, and wizards who offer escape from reality.

But despite its title and the winged green monster on the record’s album art, In League With Dragons is light on mythical beasts; only four songs here come from the original wizard musical Darnielle was writing. Instead, he fills the record with the subjects of his own escapist fantasies. “Doc Gooden” depicts the former Mets pitcher recounting his glory days: “When my name was everywhere/None of you were there.” On “Passiac 1975,” Darnielle sings from the perspective of his own personal wizard, Ozzy Osbourne. In what is possibly the gentlest song about The Prince of Darkness, we hear about the less glamorous moments in the life of Ozzy: “In a Holiday Inn by a nameless river/Renew the assault on my lungs and my liver.” Over the years, Darnielle has excelled at exploiting fallibility and irony for humor, and that shines through on the chorus, delivered in his best “We Are The World” voice: “Tell the crowd, tell the world/I want everyone to get high.”

The record occasionally delves into the arcane, as Mountain Goats records can. “Younger” cloaks an exploration of middle-aged disillusionment under an extended D&D-battle metaphor. “Possum By Night” is sung through the eyes of the titular marsupial. It plays out as any Mountain Goats song about a possum should: “All you parasites, climb aboard/All you vagabonds, praise the Lord,” Darnielle sings, backed by a quiet piano. I found it hilarious and heartbreaking; casual fans may, understandably, find it strange and skippable.

Balancing out these moments are fan-service Easter Eggs like “Going Invisible 2,” a continuation of Get Lonely B-side “Going Invisible.” It has the same resigned catharsis as their classic material, and you can easily picture a crowd singalong of the refrain: “I'm gonna burn it all down today/And sweep all the ashes away.”

Darnielle has increasingly distanced himself from those scrappy, acoustic recordings, adding in a full band, and, on the Mountain Goats’ last record, ridding himself of the guitar completely. Here, producer Owen Pallett adds orchestral flourishes, wind instruments, and delicate finger-picked guitar, resulting in one of the Mountain Goats’ most wide-ranging records: “Waylon Jennings Live!” is a full-blown country song, complete with moaning electric guitar, washboards, and shakers, while “An Antidote For Strychnine” is scored like a noir film. In Pallett’s hands, Darnielle’s voice contorts into heretofore-unheard shapes: On “Clemency for the Wizard King” he approaches “Scarborough Fair” levels of falsetto. Together, these songs function like the cast recording of a musical—each builds on what came before while also establishing its own world.

The Mountain Goats are in an enviable position. They have the trust of their audience and feel comfortable departing from their core sound. “I finally don’t feel quite so insecure,” Darnielle said in a recent Vanity Fair interview. It’s evident in the conviction in his voice as he sings about a fictional, fantastical kingdom. At some point, about a decade ago, the Mountain Goats stopped making records rooted in workaday reality; but the beauty in a Mountain Goats record is that reality pokes through whatever costumes you put on it. “It's so hard to get revenge/The human element drags you down,” he sings on the title track. Even cloaked in wizard’s garb, Darnielle can’t hide his essential humanity.

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