by Ryan Busse
To add a slight disclaimer to anything I say in this review, The Mountain Goats are one of if not my favorite band. Across seventeen official records, there are none that I would consider bad, and this latest release is no exception.
In League With Dragons is another great release in this latest episode of the Mountain Goats discography. Way back in the beginning, John Darnielle, the band’s lyricist, and only consistent member gained attention by releasing albums recorded on his boombox. This pulled listeners in with stories of characters in a wide variety of situations from many walks of life, classic releases from this era including All Hail West Texas (2002). This era of his career was sent off with the band’s first studio record Tallahassee (2002), a full record dedicated to the story of the Alpha Couple, one of his most iconic recurring set of characters. John then began to write about his own life and experiences rather than separate characters, producing the iconic The Sunset Tree (2005) in this era. Albums like Heretic Pride (2008) and The Life of the World to Come (2009), saw Darnielle grappling with the concepts of spirituality. This most recent era has seen John turning back to telling the stories of others, each album dedicated to a specific group that he takes interest in. Beat the Champ (2015) discussed the wrestlers he would go to see as a kid, while Goths (2017) detailed the rise and fall of goth music and its audience. In League With Dragons, makes connections between the mystical story of an aging wizard and the lives of aging rock stars, athletes, and other more everyday folk heroes.
Much like Goths before it, this record finds the band looking to expand their instrumental palette. What was once one man playing acoustic guitar into a boombox, has slowly evolved over these seventeen studio albums to now feature fully fleshed out arrangements including synths, piano, drums, strings, and electric guitar. This album makes full use of this expansion, with woodwinds, organs, finger-picked guitars, and even a country flavor on some of the songs. While these songs benefit from this instrumental variety, they are, as always, about the lyrics, and the characters and stories they portray.
When I went to see the Mountain Goats at the Wilbur, two days after the release of this record, I was reminded of why I love them so much. The audience saw people who were united by no other traits besides their interest in this band. This is due to the fact that across such an expansive discography, one that only gets larger when you begin to include EPs, unreleased content, and early cassettes, there is a character, story, or theme there for almost anyone to find identify with. In League With Dragons does its part in adding to this cast. We see an aging wizard, Ozzy Osborne, Doc Gooden, and even a possum confront themes of aging, lost skills, and fading relevance. Darnielle has always had a skill for applying these universal human themes to larger than life characters, something that is on full display when he gets me to identify with the worries of an old wizard. While it’s hard to say immediately where this album stands in such a long discography, it is safe to say that the Mountain Goats haven’t lost their magic.