When John Darnielle, vocalist for The Mountain Goats, announced the new album “In League with Dragons” live from the headquarters of Wizards of the Coast, the publisher of the “Dungeons & Dragons” game, it was easy to make assumptions about what this album would be.
Many, including myself, anticipated Celtic-shaded tales full of shining scales, dark magic and the legends of Faerûn. This is not that album, but that shouldn’t be off-putting. It’s through a willingness to defy thematic constraints and the sound expected from The Mountain Goats after 25 years that this record finds its own identity in an already strong discography.
“In League with Dragons” is not a traditional concept album with a throughline narrative. It’s a collection of character studies, and Mountain Goats fans should know that telling small, thematically linked stories is where Darnielle shines as a writer.
His last album, 2017’s “Goths,” venerated that subculture in all its pasty glory. Before that, 2015’s “Beat the Champ,” served as a love letter to the 1980s, pre-WWF local wrestling scene. This album was first conceived by Darnielle as a rock opera about “a besieged seaside community called Riversend, ruled by a benevolent wizard.”
Despite these roots, only a few songs are actually set in that fantasy world. All 12 tracks are united, instead, as tales of rebellion in the face of overwhelming tides and the beauty to be found in a decaying world.
Several of the characters on the album are real-world analogues to Darnielle’s wizard, and they are the real story of the album. “Passaic 1975,” for example, is a grim, but reverential tribute to Ozzy Osbourne.
“Doc Gooden” is a song about baseball. Dwight “Doc” Gooden was a pitcher for the Mets in the ‘80s. Here, we meet him down on his luck and after his celebrity has faded.
The best part of that track is a line snagged from LL Cool J: “Don’t call it a comeback / I’ve been here for years.”
The appropriately-named outlaw country song “Waylon Jennings Live!” opens perfectly with “Drunk at the Meskwaki casino / Right where God intended me to be.” This portrait of a drug dealer on the run is made more vivid by a southern twang that fully draws you into the scene.
Regardless of your connection to the source material or the genre in play, The Mountain Goats’s songs resonate because of Darnielle’s abilities as a songwriter. The tender treatment of his underdogs has a universal appeal. This holds true even when the focus isn’t on human characters. “Possum by Night” is sung from the point of view of a possum, and only Darnielle could make those sharp-toothed trash monsters endearing.
Darnielle’s skills as a lyricist have been on display since the inception of The Mountain Goats, but the ability to effectively weave between genres is a recent development and one that’s built upon here.
Country music is new territory for Darnielle, and exploring it led to three songs that gripped me much more than the more standard offerings. Still, the entire album is filled with impressive arrangements from Owen Pallett that show how much the band has grown musically thanks to its three supporting members.
“Done Bleeding” opens the album with a heavy bass line working in harmony with pounding percussion. “Younger” adds to the diverse sound with an orchestral feel achieved through a simple three-note piano refrain and a sexy saxophone solo.
“An Antidote for Strychnine” builds slowly with a moody organ that is made catchy with the addition of a flowery but effective jazz flute. This all comes together to provide a richness of sound that is a long cry away from the lo-fi days of Darnielle wielding an acoustic guitar and singing into a boombox.
Despite the bait and switch of its fantasy theme, “In League With Dragons” earns its place among the best of The Mountain Goats pantheon. It is, at times, uneven with its transitions, and this may leave some with a desire for the unfinished story of the originally-planned rock opera.
This ignores so much of the richness found in this album, where real world stories provide just as much magic as the fantasy lands of Riversend. Darnielle said he hopes a new genre called “dragon noir” will spring from this album’s release. Whether or not this style catches on, I’ll be along for the ride as long as this indie rock wizard is still casting spells.