Beat the Champ

Or "how The Mountain Goats got me to care about wrestling despite my never having watched a single match."

Interest piqued by a legendary wrestler

So I know basically nothing about wrestling, but I do like to listen to The Mountain Goats on a repeating shuffle (if were going by oistening time, they might be my #1 musical artist), so occasionally I'll get really hooked on a song from some random album that I've never properly heard in its entirety. Like, seriously, did you know they have over twenty (20) albums, not counting side stuff? It's a lot to take in!

So anyway, I had heard this one song a few times and really liked it for its hnabashed enthusiasm. It's a song about a wrestler I'd never heard of, Chavo Guerrero, for whom I had no reason whatsoever to be interested. A few lines from this song really stuck with me however, but I'll let you have a listen first.

Before a black and white TV, in the middle of the night.
I'm lying on the floor, I'm bathed in blue light,
With the telecast in Spanish, I can understand some.
And I need justice in my life: here it comes,

Of course, as a kid I definitely have memories of lying on the floor in the livingroom, watching who knows what on that old tube TV, looking for some kind of meaning among all the advertisements and reruns. This old feeling really got its hook in me, and had me wondering about what it might've been like to have found some hero on the screen way back then.

But that's not all of course. After adding a few songs from this album to my liked songs playlist, I finally found the official music video on a whim.

He was my hero back when I was a kid,
You let me down, but Chavo never once did.
You called him names to try to get beneath my skin,
Now your ashes are scattered on the wind.

This video, filled to the brim with wrestlers and other familiar faces, also features Chavo Guererro. As John Darnielle sings about his dad letting him down as a kid, he stands with the very childhood hero that helped him get through tough times.

The thing about The Mountain Goats music that I love so much is that they feel accessible, with songs you can often sing along to or which may not take themselves too seriously (e.g., Golden Boy), all of which touch on thoughtful and sometimes painful feelings, but which also ultimately tend to have themes of overcoming adversity. Whether that means "Scop[ing] out every angle of unfair advantage, ...brib[ing] the officals, ... kill[ing] all the judges" (Up the Wolves) or whether it's more of a quiet satisfaction knowing that you "won't get better, But someday [you]'ll be free" (Isaiah 45:23). The music takes you on a journey through the struggle.

Returning to the video, you can see what a dream it must be to meet and collaborate with your hero, after overcoming so many things in life. At this point in my journey, I needed to properly sit down and listen to the whole album.

An outlet

Now, I won't go into detail on every song of the album, and I'm listing several out of order here, but know that there are no bad songs. Some, however, may make you feel like the bad guy.

Sink my teeth into your scalp, take a nice big bite
Save nothing for the cameras, play the angles all night

Foreign Object is a song I've listened to many a time when my poor anger management skills left me fuming silently. It's a song that feels so straightforward. "I'm gonna stick you in the eye with a foreign object," can't get much clearer.

But of course it's wrestling. It's about the show. Maybe it's about what you can get away with doing, as an outlet for your frustration, without being called out for foul play. Or perhaps it's about just drawing blood to make the show even more engaging. Once again, I know nothing about wrestling, and I don't know John Darnielle.

It turns out, like most of his lyrics, that it's not all that simple despite having such an accessible hook into your emotions.

There are a few more songs like this, which feel like an outlet for anger and indignation. I find myself transfixed by Werewolf Gimmick, seemingly someone about to snap. But sometimes it's more than combative opposition.

Heels and faces

I didn't know what a "heel" was before listening to this album and looking up the meaning of a few words and lines as I went. As it turns out, in the world of wrestling, the heel is the bad guy, usually the loser of the fight. Wrestling loves a good narrative, so it takes a good guy and a bad guy to get a proper conflict that will really excite people.

Be an upstanding, well-loved man about town
In your child's mind that's how it goes down
But I try the losing side
I don't want to die in here
I don't want to die in here

People don't necessarily stay on the same side their whole life. Watching someone transform from face to heel, going from an "upstanding, well-loved man" to "Know[ing] how a man becomes a beast when the wolfbane blooms" (Werewolf Gimmick) is more character development than you'll find in most movies these days. This is how life is, though. This is real. Nobody is ever the good guy or the bad guy all of the time.

And it's no surprise. There's so much pressure. Sometimes you can't help but be pushed, or push back, and end up going in a direction you never expected, just to make sure you can keep going. Sometimes you only really have one option, even if you have to risk it all in the process. This can sometimes look totally self-destructive. One of my more recent favorites from this album, Choked Out, puts it so well:

No brakes down
An endless dark incline
Most of the boys
Won't ever cross this line
If they all want to die dead broke that's fine, that's fine
Everybody's got their limits
Nobody's found mine

A breath of fresh air

Like any good narrative, and like real life (hopefully), this album isn't all tension all the time. Many tracks pay homage to incredible wrestlers in ways where you can just feel the respect and care dripping through the words.

This isn't always as upbeat as The Legend of Chavo Guerrero described above (though I'd argue there are always some nuanced tones even in one of their most glorious tunes), but it still provides much-needed background that, no, it's not always fighting. There is a human element. These are whole, complex human beings, with their own identities and lives. Outside of the ring, outside of what we see, people face their own struggles, joys, and sometimes their lives can come and go.

It's an important lesson to remember when it seems like life is nothing but adversity.

Never die, never die
Stand with a bullwhip in my hand
And rise, rise
Surrounded by friends

Tender moments

There's a song I didn't really understand at first. My "analysis" of a song is generally pretty surface-level. I'm terrible with poetry and at reading between the lines even in the day-to-day. But I liked this song enough, because I love a narrative song, and because it sounded so hopeful and genuine.

Some things you will remember
Some things stay sweet forever

As it turns out, this song is about love, but not your typical love song. John Darnielle revealed in an interview with Stereogum in 2015 that it's a song about forming an immediate bond, a tag-team, with newborn life in the delivery room.

To quote him directly: It’s about the labor and delivery room. It’s about seeing your son for the first time. I mean, this is the sort of thing I would usually be coy about, but I’m proud of that song. I wrote it with my son on my lap. It’s about how they’re about to show you your son’s face and you feel this profound instinct to protect — to say, ‘Nobody gets to see you.’ It’s very intense. That’s the understatement of the year, to say it’s intense to be in the delivery room. But that’s what it’s about, that bond that you are forming a tag team, you are forming an alliance. And if you believe in a tag team when you’re watching wrestling, a good one, they feel like brothers. Even more than brothers. They feel like partners. And the word partner gains a depth that you might not have had from before.

I can see why he's proud of this song. The emotion of it really shines through, and its presence on the album really gives it a different kind of weight, balancing it out.

For an album pretty much entirely about wrestling, which at first seemed like a simple spectacle to me, it becomes clear how deep it can be in the lives of its fans as well as the wrestlers themselves. There's a whirlpool of complex emotions in so many of these songs.


A few of my favorites from this album are more melancholic. As much as I adore warm and hopeful vocals of Animal Mask, or the triumphant notes of The Legend of Chavo Guerrero (for better) or Werewolf Gimmick (or for worse), I also feel so many emotions when I hear this kind of song.

And I'm up high, trying to say goodbye
The only way I know how
Crude and graceless
Peeking through the eyeholes
Seeing the real you

Unmasked! is a song with an almost misleading title. The exclamation mark makes me feel like it'll be a high-pace spectacle, but instead I'm greeted with a gentle farewell.

The narrator's not out of the game, but his opponent will be soon, and they both know it. They share this secret, maybe not so secret. Having to go through the same motions, knowing it will inevitably end for one of you, counting down the seconds even though you don't really want to, and finally saying, or more like whispering, a goodbye. Though it never is so clear-cut as "goodbye," is it?

It's a narrative that may be all too familiar in one way or another, and it can be a heavy one to listen to. But it's cathartic in a way, to look back on potentially painful memories sometimes. To stand "before a mirror late at night" and reveal your ghosts.

The final song in the album may feel similarly heavy depending on how you interpret it.

Buzzing razor held aloft and just about to strike
I loved you before I even ever knew what love was like

I'd invite you to listen to the delicate vocals which to me evoke a feeling of vulnerability as the narrator is on the precipice of professional humiliation. And the way these vocals contrast with the instruments which sometimes sound like they're working their way back up before getting knocked down again.

Ultimately the song feels like it draws attention to the spectactle of it all. It's a painful situation, and it doesn't feel like it ends in resolution. You're left standing in the parking lot. The show is over, and you can make what you will of the pieces, as the instrumentals fade out with a certain ambiguity.


Beat the Champ is a concept album by The Mountain Goats about wrestling. It has 13 songs and a runtime of about 45 minutes. It's available on YouTube Music) through the embedded playlist below, as well as on Spotify and likely other platforms I've never used. As I said before, there are no bad songs in this album, and as I've not covered them all here, so I recommend checking out the whole thing.

Like any good concept album, Beat the Champ explores a variety of emotions and themes through direct reference or through metaphor and analogy.

The choice of wrestling as the concept is, in my opinion, perfect. Of course there is a genuine love of wrestling behind the decision which plays a huge part. Wrestling also seems, itself, to be ripe with emotion and tension, being all about narrative and conflict, making it kind of shocking that it's not a part of more music.

For The Mountain Goats, this is a truly perfect match. They are wonderfully talented at exploring conflict and struggle in this way. To have so much of this good stuff in such a neat and focused package is a real treat.

The album is of course about wrestling, but, not to sound like a mega-fan of wrestling as I am not one, it seems that wrestling is practically just the struggle of life, but in a distilled and sometimes exaggerated form.

A lot of the songs on this album have independently gotten me through tough times dealing with things that felt similar to how the songs made me feel. Listening to the album gave me feelings of hope after passing through the more painful songs. Emotionally, it's a wonderful album.

And of course if you're not in it for the emotions, marveling at the music itself is always an option with The Mountain Goats. As well, I'm sure it's a special kind of entertaining to listen to such an album if you are yourself a big fan of this kind of wrestling. I'd love to hear about such experiences.

And that's it. I'm bad at conclusions. If you've read this much about the album and still not given it a listen, well I'm not your boss, but I don't know what you're doing here. I hope you enjoy the music, and I thank you for your attention.