The Mountain Goats‘ In League With Dragons is a thoroughly okay Mountain Goats record. It has some great jams, some forgettable tunes, and some your-mileage-may-vary songs. I suspect due to its emphasis on subtlety that it is a grower, so check back in a year or two to see if it has worked its magic on me. That’s what happened to me with Goths, and now I love that album. Maybe John’s just doing growers these days. More power to you.
If you’re a longtime fan of tMG, ILWD is a non-concept record that is more memorable than All Eternals Deck but not as sonically compelling as Heretic Pride or Transcendental Youth. [I’ve grown to judge all tMG records against the albums of their type, lumping together overt concept records (All Hail West Texas, Tallahassee, We Shall All Be Healed, The Sunset Tree, The Life of the World to Come, Beat the Champ) and largely-non-concept records (Get Lonely, Heretic Pride, All Eternals Deck, Transcendental Youth, Goths, and now In League With Dragons).]
“But wait,” you might say, “I was promised a concept record about wizards! It was gonna do for D&D what Beat the Champ did for wrestling and The Life of the World to Come did for the Bible!” We were promised that. Sadly, we do not get that. John abandoned the thread midway, leaving us with only a handful of tunes that get sufficiently weird as to fulfill that wild premise (“Younger,” “Clemency for the Wizard King,” “Sicilian Crest,” maybe “An Antidote for Strychnine”). It’s a non-concept record, unless you’re playing D&D campaigns that include a New York Mets pitcher, Black Sabbath, and Waylon Jennings. (And if you are, I give you free rein to compare it with the concept records, but I should think it would fare rather poorly. Also, please record your sessions and release them as a podcast, I would listen to that very much.)
Yet, nothing in tMG land is that simple. This record serves an incredibly different purpose other than being a non-concept entry in the tMG oeuvre. It is, in fact, a key. If you are trying to introduce your family and friends to the Mountain Goats (and as a tMG person, you are of course doing this a fair bit of the time), you can play this record for them, ask them which tune/tunes they liked the most, and then direct them to the tMG album they will like the most. I can’t say John planned it this way, but ILWD is actually a remarkably clever way to get people in to the fandom. So, for the rest of the review, I’m going to illuminate the key. I may make off-handed remarks about whether or not I like a particular track, but mostly I’m going to make each song an RIYL.
Here we go.
1. “Done Bleeding” – If your friend is deeply moved by depiction of a drug addict getting clean, send them directly to the opening track of We Shall All Be Healed.
2. “Younger” – This is the single from the record and it is a good choice to represent the album. It’s a bit of a jam, and that’s good. It sounds like a cross between the gloomy vibes of All Eternals Deck and the confidently-doomed vocal approach from Transcendental Youth (particularly “Lakeside View Apartment Suite”). The lyrics have a highly stylistized narrator approach that comes directly out of Beat the Champ, so if you like the lyrics, jump up “Heel Turn 2” or “Stabbed to Death Outside San Juan”.
3. “Passaic 1975” – Goths is about working musicians and about celebrating the music of youth. This is both of those in one track: a story about what it must have been like to be Black Sabbath. In a different vein, the song itself is weirdly major-key, sort of like that time the chipper “Genesis 3:23” snuck its way into the mostly-somber The Life of the World to Come. (“Genesis 3:23” is a more compelling song, though, so if you’re into “Passaic 1975” you’re gonna be jazzed about “Genesis 3:23”).
4. “Clemency for the Wizard King” – If your listener is super-stoked by this mystic folk experience, you are going to unfortunately have to tell them “sorry, this is the album ILWD should have been, this is all we’ve got, hopefully he does more of this next time.” This is my favorite track on the record, which is why I am particularly disappointed that he chucked the concept halfway through.
5. “Possum by Night” – This is a great John piano ballad–I love his ballads, so I’m a 100% sucker for this song. It’s my second favorite song on the record, probably because you could slap it right on in to The Life of the World to Come sonically and lyrically; all you’d need to do is pick a bible verse for its title and it’s done. (Given the lyrical content and what I’m reading these days, I’d choose “Zephaniah 3:19.”) If you like this song, you will be hardcore in love with World to Come.
6. “In League With Dragons” – The introspective, solitary nature of the narrator makes the lyrics apex Get Lonely. It’s more chipper than most of Get Lonely, but not by much.
7. “Doc Gooden” – Are you very interested in stories of people dealing with the loss of dignity? John wrote a whole album for you called All Eternals Deck. “The Autopsy Garland” is a good place to start.
8. “Going Invisible 2” – The big indie-pop vocal melody here is straight up Heretic Pride; if you want more indie-pop jams then you’re gonna love all of that record (except, uh, maybe not the two reggae songs). I feel obliged to note that “Going Invisible” was a deep-cut b-side for Get Lonely, so this title directly calls back to that album, even though I feel like this one doesn’t really have the spirit of Get Lonely; there’s way more initiative than was present in Get Lonely. (This is a fairly minor quibble, I’ll grant.)
9. “Waylon Jennings Live” – Goths again, this one directly naming a musician in the title. Also, it’s a country song. I’ve got nothing on that front.
10. “Cadaver Sniffing Dog” – If you listen to the podcast Song Exploder, you’ve already been informed that this is a full-on metaphor song that’s actually about a messy breakup. Tallahassee it is!
11. “An Antidote for Strychnine” – This is a six-minute deeeeeeeep groove and my third favorite track on the record. It’s got that ominous Transcendental Youth vibe.
12. “Sicilian Crest” – If your listener is really into this jam, maybe you should direct them to ABBA instead of tMG. That’s no knock on this track or on ABBA–this track actually sounds like a Swedish vocal-disco cut. I’m as confused as you are. It’s fun anyway.
tMG fans may be wondering why there’s no reference here to The Sunset Tree and that’s because I’m not comfortable comparing anything to The Sunset Tree. Sunset is that good. You should recommend your friend go listen to Sunset no matter what song they liked off In League With Dragons. —Stephen Carradini