Upon hearing Beat the Champ - the latest album from The Mountain Goats - I was instantly reminded of The Baseball Project, the sport-obsessed supergroup that's made up of R.E.M. alumni and various other alt rock luminaries. To date, The Baseball Project have released three albums' worth of songs about baseball and the stories that have become the sport's legends; with Beat the Champ, John Darnielle has done much the same thing, except with professional wrestling.
Now, while some of the tracks on Beat the Champ (notably The Legend of Chavo Guerrero, The Ballad of Bull Ramos, and Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan) are about real people and the real things that happened to them, Darnielle is just as happy to invent his own wrestler and write songs about them:
Furthermore, Darnielle seems to be far more interested in thoughts and feelings than facts and figures (in stark contrast to The Baseball Project, who have a song called Stats that literally consists of out-of-context baseball statistics being read out over the band's musical interpretation of a box score). For example, Beat the Champ's opening track, Southwestern Territory, gives us an insight into the mind of a wrestler on the road, and he sounds very tired indeed:
That leads me to perhaps the starkest difference between 3rd and Beat the Champ: the former makes baseball sound fun and cool and maybe even glamorous, whilst the latter isn't afraid to take a good, hard look at the darker, bloodier side of its subject. 3rd is packed with songs about fortune and fame and awards and home runs; Beat the Champ is populated by characters who are bleeding and choking and fighting just to make ends meet. Even the more upbeat songs like Choked Out! convey a certain desperation:
"Kick and claw and scratch and bite, fire up the grill, everybody eats tonight, choked out! 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!"
(For the uninitiated, to be 'choked out' means to be strangled until the lack of oxygen causes you to pass out. The singer of this song gets paid extra for being 'choked out' by his opponent, and it sounds like those few additional dollars are necessary for him to feed his family.)
Just to clarify, I'm not ragging on 3rd; it's a fun, fabulous album, and to be fair, it does look at some of baseball's less bright moments as well. There's From Nails to Thumbtacks, all about a center fielder who was convicted of grand theft auto; there's ¡Hola America!, in which a Cuban player leaves his family behind to join the big leagues; and Larry Yount, one of my personal favourites, which tells the story of a budding ball player who was sent down without throwing a single pitch:
To add insult to injury, Larry's brother Robin Yount went on to become a Hall of Famer.
Still, none of those tracks involve people getting stabbed or strangled or shaven with thriftstore razors; even the songs that discuss drug use are significantly less gritty than most of the songs on Beat the Champ.
Then again, what was I expecting? Baseball games are nowhere near as violent as wrestling matches, so why should the albums about those two sports be any different? Perhaps if there were an indie-rock supergroup who wrote songs about UFC fights...