To try and contextualize any new record from The Mountain Goats seems a lengthy and difficult task. Having started in the mid 90s as a lo-fi solo output from then amateur singer/songwriter John Darnielle, the band has grown into an actual group of musicians (four in total). Across 17 albums and multiple EPs, The Mountain Goats have existed as putting out some of the most incredibly well-written songs around, focusing on everything from Darnielle’s personal traumatic backstory to entirely fictional characters fumbling through life. Though, in recent years, the band have gone more full-force into concept album territory. In 2015 there was the professional wrestling record Beat The Champ. 2017 saw the band following that up with Goths, a record devoted to detailing the goth subculture. And now that another two years have gone by, we’ve arrived at In League With Dragons, an album that on its surface seems like it should be a concept album obsessed with Dungeons & Dragons-like stories, but instead covers a wide range of topics. In that sense, it works as almost a summation of all the various forms songs by The Mountain Goats have taken.
On the one hand, In League With Dragons isn’t unlike some of the other recent TMG releases like All Eternals Deck or Transcendental Youth. On The other hand, it’s almost presenting itself as something it’s not, which isn’t necessarily a totally bad thing. Who would complain about being surprised that there’s a great song on here sung from the perspective of a possum? And yet, with all the varied topics, it’s hard to pin down whether or not this album coalesces into a complete work. There are wider ideas that crop up across many of the songs here, but that itself doesn’t make it sound like everything quite fits together. To simplify things, we can divide the album into four distinct sections, although they’re not in sequence on the LP.
First off, there’s the personal, with two songs sounding like they’re directly lifted from John Darnielle’s past. Album opener “Done Bleeding” is a reflective snapshot of a song about Darnielle literally and figuratively leaving his past behind. It’s a bold way to open the album in the sense that it immediately throws you off guard with its spaciousness and low-key story, which doesn’t gel with the idea of this being a concept album about wizards. Later there’s “Going Invisible 2,” which is basically a retread of the opening track, albeit less interesting. There’s not as much to grab onto both lyrically or musically. The space that was amplified on “Done Bleeding” with clean, complete instrumentals is more washed out with a simple arrangement that never does anything wholly engaging.
Elsewhere on the album, Darnielle fleshes out character portraits, specifically characters grappling with addictions of some kind. First, there’s “Passaic 1975,” which is about Ozzy Osbourne out on tour, and so mentally clouded by drug and alcohol abuse that he needs a teleprompter that scrolls lyrics. It’s one of those Mountain Goats songs whose airy prettiness is juxtaposed flawlessly with depressing, dark subject matter. Things don’t get too obviously heavy lyrically, but once you understand that this was in the period of Black Sabbath close to when Ozzy was about to be kicked out for his addiction, it gives the song more tragic meaning. Later, Darnielle pens a song about baseball player Dwight “Doc” Gooden, who had his own issues with drug abuse. It slides in historical mentions alongside a western-sounding guitar to keep it distinct and moving. It’s less obvious than the Ozzy track, feeling just a hair too obscured to really grasp. The third of the character pieces comes on “Waylon Jennings Live!” which is not about Waylon Jennings, but more of an attempt by Darnielle to write a Waylon Jennings-style song. The unnamed character isn’t a literal historical figure like the previously mentioned two, but he’s still clearly someone worth spending some time with. It opens with a guy getting completely drunk at a casino, armed with a suitcase of “firearms and flash drives,” ready to either get what’s coming to him, or flee across the border. Instrumentally, it’s a country-lite sort of song, with a definite twang present, but not enough to really sound committed to the style.
The three character portrait songs are a conscious attempt by Darnielle to make parallels between the aging wizard rock opera concept that started off the recording of In League With Dragons. It makes sense, then, how these can fit into the broader themes of the album, although it’s not a tight fit. Being that this album started as a more rigidly conceptual project, there are some songs that are specifically about wizards, with wildly mixed results. Lead single “Younger” is the finest of that batch. It’s a nearly six-minute, atmospherically dark song both about preparing for battle and reflecting on life when one was younger (an idea that is peppered throughout TMG’s catalog). The vagueness that came with the personal tracks about this concept is given much more room to breathe here, with a grander scale of lushly composed instrumental work. Lyrically and instrumentally, the track mirrors the idea of an army of troops slowly descending onto enemy territory. And its climactic saxophone solo adds even more dimension to the noir-aspect of the record, a sound that Darnielle talked about in pre-release materials but only comes forth a small handful of times on the LP.
But while “Younger” works for how it can be both about the wizard concept and yet broad enough to not feel utterly reliant on it, the same can’t be said for the other two concept-driven tracks. “Clemency For The Wizard King” is very obviously a track about a group of heroes who are pleading with an unknown villain to let a wizard go free. It doesn’t work because it can’t stand on its own, and its music isn’t engaging enough to overcome the odd placement on the album. It would have made sense on a rock opera concept album, but feels almost like a throwaway leftover. Then there’s the title track, which is sort of in between “Younger” and “Clemency” in terms of enjoyment. It’s clearly from the perspective of someone living in a realm dominated by wizards, but its also broad enough (mostly) to be about the larger thematic through-lines of the rest of the album. Sadly, though, the music of it doesn’t do enough to really lift it up into a more engaging place. “Younger” sounds so fully fleshed out and wholly compelling, but the other concept tracks just kind of lie there, never feeling like they’re completely justified to be on the LP, other than the fact that they’re tied to its title and supposed concept.
The fourth section of material tries to do weirder things, with self-contained tracks about bizarre subjects. And although they may stick out the most for how un-connected to the rest of the album they feel, they’re also the best bunch of tracks here. “Possum By Night” is the aforementioned song sung from the perspective of a possum, and although it’ll be a divisive one among fans, there’s something so perfectly captured here that I find it undeniable. The odd balance between being kind of jokey to strangely sad somehow works beautifully. And the surreality of hearing Darnielle sing a battle-cry for a possum community while the music remains wistfully somber (just piano notes, small synth textures, brief pounds of drums) is something I never knew I wanted so badly. “Cadaver Sniffing Dog” is at once literally about the subject of the title, and also a larger metaphor for a ruined relationship. Although it may sound slight at first glance, it becomes one of the more engaging songs here because of its commitment to the noir sound. Its brief, bloody images are executed perfectly with the song’s constantly driving rock sound.
But it’s really “An Antidote For Strychnine” that shines even brighter. It’s the longest song on the record, but never once feels that way because of its constantly build-up of layering sounds and textures. It’s incredibly moody, dark, and almost reminisce of the last Mountain Goats LP Goths, but I still can’t help but just wanting to bathe in its all-encompassing darkness. It’s also brilliantly placed in the tracklisting, coming right before the album closer and perhaps overall best song on the record, “Sicilian Crest.” The darkness from the preceding song (and album as a whole) is washed away almost completely with an 80s-inspired, synth-heavy jam, sounding like nothing the band has ever really done before. It’s got the free-flowing, feel-good soundscape that’ll soundtrack any sort of summer night drive, which itself is frankly hilarious considering it’s actually a songs about a fascist leader. But it’s that kind of stark juxtaposition between lyrics and music that often makes the music of The Mountain Goats so appealing. Darnielle remains one of the most brilliant songwriters, and the way he’s often able to blend dark ideas or imagery with straight-to-the-heart catchiness will remain unmatched in music for years to come.
Yet at the end of it all, it’s hard to quite come to a compelling conclusion of what to make of In League With Dragons. It’s at once satisfying for most Mountain Goats fans, and likely very entertaining and engaging for new listeners. Yet, when the newness of it all slides away, what you’re left with is not quite top of the pile Mountain Goats music. Although it comes in the concept-driven period of their lengthily discography, it fails to go crazily all-in on the concept, instead opting for a more nuanced thematic structure. Songs here are often about war more than dragons. Sometimes the war is with oneself, or one’s past, other times it’s with outside elements of nature or threats to a larger world. But not all of those ideas of the concept of war are rendered as fully fleshed out as they could be. Sometimes the lyrics, or especially choruses, don’t stick like they should, other times the music leaves something to be desired. But, when all the members of The Mountain Goats fully go in on a subject, with lyrics that compliment the music and vice versa, it hits hard. The album as a whole isn’t a complete triumph or a major disappointment. Instead it comfortably resides somewhere in the middle. Surely it’ll have its devotees, as most Mountain Goats records do. But when looking at the wide breadth of their output, it can’t compete with the best-of-the-best-of-the-best. Sometimes, though, just having an album that gives you shades of styles and characters and themes is perfectly okay. I mean, that’s not bad at all, all things considered. And yet, I can’t be the only person out there somewhat let down that no dragons really showed up on this thing, right? Where are those dragons? Give me the dragons.
3.5 out of 5.