The Lowdown: Though he’s only recently found acclaim as a novelist, John Darnielle has always been a storyteller. From the toxic voyeurism of the Alpha Couple on down, Darnielle’s most rewarding work as the Mountain Goats often comes at the end of a narrative thread. Recently, that thread has also run through thematic explorations of Darnielle’s youthful obsessions; after paying homage to bygone wrestlers on 2015’s Beat the Champ and reckoning with their Bauhaus years on 2017’s Goths, the Mountain Goats now deliver the third entry in this nerdy triptych with In League with Dragons, a record of “dragon noir” inspired by Dungeons & Dragons.
The Good: Although Darnielle announced the record with full RPG pomp during an event with D&D makers Wizards of the Coast, In League with Dragons evolved past its initial concept as a high-fantasy rock opera into something that slips back and forth between the real and imagined. Anyone hoping Darnielle might go full Darkskorch Canticles may feel a twinge of disappointment, especially when they hear the traces of true “dragon noir” that remain from the project’s early life; from the harmonious “Clemency for the Wizard King” to the tense “Younger”, the songs located during the siege of Darnielle’s fictional city of Riversend pulse with an energy and attention to detail that most Dungeon Masters would kill for. Of these, “In League with Dragons” is the best. Sung from the perspective of the soon-to-be toppled wizard as he waits for his (potentially unreliable) dragon ally, the song captures what Darnielle himself identified as “a drawing-together of the themes in play: rebellion against irresistible tides, the lush vistas of decay, necessary alliances.”
Though the fantastical moments are tantalizing, they’re also matched by songs found closer to our own world. Opener “Done Bleeding” finds Darnielle, an aging wizard in his own right, reflecting on his past and his ever-changing concepts of self over pictures of lessons learned and good choices made. It’s perhaps the most content he’s ever sounded, or at least his version of content. There are moments of genuine surprise, too; Darnielle finds real emotion in his modern-day Wind in the Willows update “Possum by Night”, a Broadway-grade piano ballad aided in its pursuits by Jon Wurster’s jazzy watercolor rhythms. Wurster’s drums may be the record’s truest secret weapon; from thumping like a sick heartbeat under Jethro Tull flutes on the moody “An Antidote for Strychnine” to ticking double-time on “Cadaver-Sniffing Dog”, his beats are always exactly where they’re needed most in any given moment.
The Bad: Not all of Darnielle’s transitions from wizards to reality land where he wants them. Of the record’s trio of songs dedicated to our own world’s aging wizards, only “Doc Gooden” and its tale of a rainy road trip to Seattle during the once-dominant pitcher’s late-’90s stint in American League purgatory really lives up to its source material; the character sketches of Ozzy Osbourne in “Passaic 1975” and an unnamed arms dealer taking in an outlaw country show in “Waylon Jennings Live!” are both too thin and by-the-numbers to make either man’s story stand out. The record also fails to take full advantage of the baroque possibilities afforded by producer Owen Pallett, opting instead for a muted, mostly flourish-free approach that (with the exception of the chilling Get Lonely sequel “Going Invisible 2”) undersells both his and Darnielle’s obvious talents.
The Verdict: Given the record’s stated evolution, In League with Dragons is an inevitably uneven listen; after your first time through, you’ll likely walk away hungry for a fully realized version of Darnielle’s rock opera. Like most D&D campaigns, the story of Riversend may always remain unfinished, but Darnielle’s work on In League with Dragons reminds us that the stories of our own world, however imperfectly told, hold more richness than any fantasy novel. The record gives us yet another chance to appreciate our own wizard at work, an opportunity that no fan of indie rock should ever pass up.
Essential Tracks: “Done Bleeding”, “Younger”, and “Possum by Night”
Buy: Check out more Mountain Goats vinyl here.