Finding a concept for a concept album can be hard to pin down, but for the Mountain Goats, it has never been much of a problem. From the Bible to organ harvesting colonies on the Moon, they have never shied away from the downright weird. Their new album In League with Dragons is a Dungeons and Dragons inspired album that mixes troubadour guitar strumming with vivid imagine inducing lyrics. The Mountain Goats started their recording career recording their tracks via boom-box recordings. Despite their use of recording studios over the years, they have been able to maintain a sense of garage band music while using their everyday experiences to make the non-musical, musical.
“An Antidote for Strychnine”, is confirmation that the Mountain Goats give no apology when it comes to basing an album on a concept. This track follows the journey of a man who is looking for an antidote. It is a musical balancing act of realities by trying to balance the world of the game and reality. They identify the ultimate universal theme found in both life and games, staying alive. The importance of staying alive in a game like this is nearly as important as staying alive in real life and the music re-enforces this idea by maintaining a dull and lifeless energy, akin to someone dying. Despite this, there is still a sense of optimism. Like any good game, time is the thing that spurs it on with the music at the bridge picking up in liveliness, giving the impression time is wearing down. This might not be the best track on the album, but its chorus is one that you will be singing for a while, no matter what your reality.
From a wandering man to wandering animals, “Possum by Night”, on first listen, it sounds like a wandering person trying to spread a story or prophecy, but really, it’s about a possum. And what’s more, John Darnielle confirmed that this song is actually sung from the point of view of a possum. Tales of his wandering echo throughout the track and it creates a strange singing-around-the-campfire feeling. The track itself never really takes off, it plods along on its tiny legs, giving space to a voice of something that generally goes unheard. This track gives off some serious small possum, big world vibes.
Unlike the short-legged shuffle of “Possum by Night”, “Cadaver Sniffer Dog” is a rushed and weirdly driven song that maintains an energy only maintained when trying to deal with an emergency. It unnerves you, like a recon mission with a plan but no plan with how to deal with the unknown. The juxtaposition of a slightly happy voice calling for a cadaver dog and the grounded backing track creates a type of musical poetry that is sometimes astounding. This track makes you see, feel, hear and generates a disgusting phantom smell that allows this song to engulf all the senses.
In League with Dragons is a difficult album to get a handle on, but give it time. It is too clever for a single listen. This album needs to be dissected and consumed with the Mountain Goats back catalog. It tips in and out of previously used themes and concepts to create a full and vibrant album. This album definitely grows on you, even if middle-aged Troubadour rock is not your thing.