Tim Showalter (Strand of Oaks) Talks the Mountain Goats’ Beat the Champ

Somehow, John Darnielle only gets better with age. A dedicated student pays tribute to the champ.

When did I start listening to the Mountain Goats? Well, that’s kind of like asking when I started masturbating. Both have kind of always been there, and I’ve loved every second of it.

* Drops the goddamn mic *

I’m back. I fucking laid waste to the Father John Misty piece (c’mon, Mist Man… give a bearded brother a retweet), though I fear I might have used up all my mojo. So I’m basically going to use a familiar template to get me through this: heavily detailed nostalgia trips relating back to music, mixed with side thoughts awkwardly placed in parentheses. (Actually, I think the parentheses schtick is getting a bit overplayed.) So if you’re here to get a proper review, don’t expect much. You should pick up an old copy of Copper Press; that’s what I used to read.

With that said, I now have the impossible challenge of writing about the Mountain Goats’ latest album Beat the Champ. How do you write about your lyrical hero? If Bob Dylan is the Michael Jordan of lyrics, then John Darnielle has to be Dominique Wilkins.

I feel like both Jordan and Dylan did everything for themselves, which is in no way a bad thing. They both existed on such a high level that it felt hard to relate to either; you could watch and listen in awe and feel completely disconnected from them. On the other hand, Darnielle and Wilkins, in their respective genius, wanted to inspire others. I remember seeing posters of Dominique’s jams and it instantly made me want to go outside and see how high my eight-year-old legs could jump.

The Mountain Goats did the same for me. I was still in high school and had gotten hold of an extremely used cassette copy of The Coroners Gambit. (2000) I would listen to “Family Happiness” on repeat, just waiting for Darnielle’s voice to quiver at the climactic “you can’t make me go to war.” I would then promptly switch tapes, pick up my Applause electro-acoustic and press record. I think I was operating under the name Much Needed Rest at the time, and my lyrical imagery was most likely a piss-poor mashup of Darnielle and perhaps Winners Never Quit-era Pedro the Lion (also from 2000). There were lots of black Polaroids and ill-fitting clothes from the Army/Navy store. I would strum for hours and try to write songs about destinations and disintegrating marriages, neither of which I had any reason or experience to write about.

But something about the way Darnielle sang and played seemed so welcoming. It was as if he were reaching through tape and telling a lost 17-year-old to just try it. Never mind if you’re qualified or have any business playing the guitar and singing, this is yours and damn anyone who tells you otherwise. Dylan never told me these things, in fact it felt like the opposite. I felt unworthy to strum his chords or sing his words. And maybe I’ll never be able to express myself in the focused way that Darnielle does, and I’ll definitely never be able to pull off Wilkins’ ’88 double windmill. But both of their talents are approached with such generosity that it makes me believe that it’s at least reasonable to reach for what they’ve done.

Beat the Champ is my favorite Mountain Goats record… well, maybe tied with The Sunset Tree (2005). Goddamn, I don’t know how he did it again. What strikes me instantly is how, for the first time, I’m paying attention to the music and arrangements just as much as the lyrics. And for the first time in the Mountain Goats’ discography, the highlight of the record might be an instrumental. The piano outro to “Heel Turn 2” says more than perhaps anything else on the record. Darnielle hits you with so much stimulus and information that this respite is almost dangerous. The wizard steps away for a brief few minutes, and you’re left with your own thoughts.

First thoughts: why the hell is he talking about wrestling so much? Why is this music making me feel sad about growing older? Why am I being overwhelmed by such crushing beauty? By the end of the piano eulogy, you want to hear Darnielle sing again. I need his guidance, and I am not ready to face whatever I’m feeling right now.

Does it matter that I know absolutely nothing about wrestling? No. I didn’t know anything about a high school football player with a penchant for dealing meth and Darnielle still made me feel like I was roommates with the guy. Again, I’m not here to tell you about themes or what Beat the Champ is supposed to be telling us. Give me a year with this record and I might have a better answer. All I know right now is that this record is a beautiful and touching collection of songs written by a master of his craft.

At this point, Darnielle is my Daedalus, the wise father whose invention grants freedom from whatever form of prison you find yourself in. He creates the tools that a misguided and fucked up kid like me can fly with. The stable authority gives their gifts to someone who has in no way learned to deal with such power. Even if I completely misuse the inspiration that Darnielle has given me for almost half my life, I still am left completely grateful that he opened the door and let us all realize the endless joy that songwriting can bring.

Ha. I bet you all thought I was going to tie this back to masturbation.

Tim Showalter performs as Strand of Oaks. His new album HEAL is available now via Dead Oceans. You can follow him on Twitter and Facebook.