In League With Dragons is no more a concept album about Dungeons & Dragons than Sgt. Pepper is a concept album about its titular band: in both instances most of the actual songs on the record don’t relate to the central “concept”.
But, to be fair, John Darnielle – the brilliant songwriter and musician behind The Mountain Goats – dispelled such illusions about his own album before they had had long enough to gestate into misinformation in the press; here’s what he said about it in a press release, which is so amusing and thought-provoking I just had to post it in full:
“This album began life as a rock opera about a besieged seaside community called Riversend ruled by a benevolent wizard, for which some five to seven songs were written. When I’m focusing on a project, I always distract myself from the through-line with multiple byways, which are kind of like mini-games within the broader architecture of a long video game. As I worked on the Riversend stuff, weird noir visions started creeping in, probably under the influence of Leonardo Sciascia (a Sicilian author, he wrote mysteries) and Ross MacDonald’s The Zebra-Striped Hearse, which a friend from Port Washington gave me while I was in the thick of the writing. I thought these moods helped complicate the wizards and dragons a little, and, as I thought about my wizard, his health failing, the invasion by sea almost certain to wipe out half his people, I thought about what such a person might look like in the real world: watching a country show at a midwestern casino, or tryout pitching for an American League team years after having lit up the marquees. Finally, I wrote the title track, which felt like a drawing-together of the themes in play: rebellion against irresistible tides, the lush vistas of decay, necessary alliances. I am earnestly hoping that a new genre called “dragon noir” will spring from the forehead of nearly two years’ work on these songs, but, if not, I am content for this to be the sole example of the style.”
That’s a fascinating insight into the creative process behind the album, and it certainly enriches the listening experience to be aware of his intentions (bore off, post-structuralist theorists). It’s necessary to understand that the wizards on this album are not all literal ones, although sometimes they are. You get some real-life wizards popping up in the narratives, including a boozed-up Ozzy Osbourne, a contraband-smuggling Waylon Jennings, and I’m guessing that’s John Darnielle himself sweeping the front porch and trying to also sweep the pain away on “Done Bleeding” – that last song reeks (in the best way possible) of autobiographical sweat and blood. There are also animal wizards: a possum heading bravely out into the night, and perhaps most bizarrely a “Cadaver Sniffing Dog”; but then what could appear more wizard-like to us than the superhuman senses of our animal friends?
Wizards are just flawed mixtures of magic and failure, like the rest of us in the animal kingdom. Wizards are just trying to keep the forces of darkness at bay for as long as possible, whether in this world or any other, and Ozzy Osbourne attempting to keep his drug-addled consciousness together long enough to perform in front of a crowd of 10,000 is, in context, presented as being as much of a feat of superhuman effort as the psychological preparations for battle that the adolescent men in “Younger” are tasked with undertaking.
Why shouldn’t a possum trying to climb to the top of a compost pile in the dead of night, with long-haul truckers still awake and ready to give ’em hell, inspire as much awe and wonder in us as a bunch of wizards teaming up with dragons to fight evil forces?
Wizards are all over this album, and not just in the lyrics. John Darnielle’s backing band are a tight unit, and they’re wizards, all of them. Jon Wurster has got much praise for his supple drumming, and deservedly so. But listen out also for Peter Hughes on bass, so much the driving force behind “Younger” and “Doc Gooden”, and so omnipresent that he makes the whole album change in tone and feel deeper in groove than recent albums by The Mountain Goats. Check out also the surprising yet retrospectively ideal saxophone solo from Matt Douglas at the end of “Younger”. Keep your ears open, and open-minded, for Dan Dudmore’s pedal steel that heralds the dragon in the title track.
And of course, listen out for John Darnielle himself. Because sometimes, it must be admitted, he’s difficult to hear. His vocals here are soft and quiet, somewhat reminiscent of 70s soft rock icons like John Denver and James Taylor. And though he’s opted to return to guitars after absenting them completely from his last project Goths, they’re generally acoustic and more in the folk tradition than rock. Which isn’t to say that an electric guitar won’t suddenly sneak up and surprise you, as it did with me on “Cadaver Sniffing Dog”. But for the most part, the guitars and Darnielle’s voice are kept deceptively gentle, never descending on the listener with full force – as they did on tracks earlier in his career like “The Young Thousands”, for instance, which is still to my ears the most powerful thing Darnielle has ever produced – as you might expect an album containing dragons to do.
But then, as anyone who knows or cares about The Mountain Goats (which is a fair few music nerds) will be aware, you can’t ever expect Darnielle to do the expected. If he’s to make an album about goth music, he’ll take out the supposedly requisite guitars. If he’s to make an album about Dungeons & Dragons, he’ll make his voice gentle and sweet like a bedtime story and his guitars unexpectedly yearn for country and folk rather than thunderous metal.
In League With Dragonsis another good album from The Mountain Goats, another bizarre twist on the “concept album” from the mind of John Darnielle, and another satisfyingly weird amalgamation of musical sources from him and his band. It won’t shake you to your foundations like a dragon. But it might make you ponder your existence like an aged wizard.