Having made music for approaching 30 years, reviewing a new Mountain Goats record seemed, admittedly, both daunting and a bit redundant—what could we say about John Darnielle and company that hasn’t been said a million times since their first recordings back in 1991? But given that their latest, IN LEAGUE WITH DRAGONS, is theoretically inspired by the tabletop role-playing game Dungeons & Dragons, a “dragon noir” rock opera of sorts that has its roots so tied in fantasy and nerd culture that Wizards of the Coast helped announce it, we figured what better way to get some fresh perspectives on a veteran act than by asking some staff members who actually play D&D to give the record a whirl! Enjoy!
Ian Campbell, MGRM Contributor
The quest was simple: At dawn, in a secluded glen far outside the village, if you gazed upon the rocky outcropping and the light hit it just right, you’d see something. Something revelatory. Or, at least, that’s what the old man in the village said when you asked him. What you saw wasn’t revelatory, but it was familiar.
IN LEAGUE WITH DRAGONS feels familiar too, comforting in how assured it is. Intricate and clear indie folk and country songs detailing the failings of youth, the brief pause that comes at the end of beginnings, the start of everything else and, most importantly, the innocence of a particular wizard king. DRAGONS was sold as an album about a Dungeons & Dragons campaign, but it’s just as much about roleplaying itself, escapism through performance and storytelling and how that can both offer insight and obvious pitfalls to real growth. By living just as much in fantasy as in the real lives of real-life tragic heroes (Doc Gooden’s strikeout record, Waylon Jennings’ honky tonk mastery, both men’s struggles with addiction), The Mountain Goats create a contrast between the tragedies we live (and tell ourselves we deserve) and the adventurous fantasy that was our youth (as we see it now). The only commonality between the two, the inescapable truth of both fantasy and reality, is death and the desire for self-destruction.
So what you see when the light hits the rocky outcropping is not some hidden truth, not an ancient secret or the next clue in some grand mystery, but rather a reflection. A reflection of a face, older now, tired, but very much your own. The quest might not have been worth it. To see something you could’ve found in the village all those miles way… that would have been so much easier, so much safer. The face is yours though. Even without a smile.
Jacob Martin, Music Contributor
Another year, another Mountain Goats record that inexplicably tackles another topic that I care rather deeply about. After taking on one of my own personal favorite forms of entertainment, professional wrestling, on 2015’s BEAT THE CHAMP, I now find John Darnielle releasing an album about, of all things, Dungeons & Dragons, the classic role-playing game that I play in a University of Illinois Chicago classroom every Wednesday night. D&D is a lot of things for many people, but for me it was always just about socialization and bonding. As silly as it may seem from the outside, and let me tell you it is far MORE ridiculous than you probably think it is, a Dungeons & Dragons session ultimately boils down to creatively solving problems as a group and working around the strengths and weaknesses of your friends to achieve a common goal. In this way, it’s not terribly dissimilar from making music with a group of people. On IN LEAGUE WITH DRAGONS, Darnielle is ostensibly singing about D&D, but in all reality the record functions as an open love letter to the very concept of escapism and, more specifically, to the broader idea of the lorekeeper, of the aging wizard, and of the ways that these mythical figures take form in today’s world, from literal ancient wizards in fantasy role-playing games, to old retired baseball greats, to wizened veteran rock stars like Ozzy Osbourne. And although the record departs from concept more often than not, the central concern remains the same regardless of if you’re an aspiring rock band in a garage, a team of ballplayers in a dugout, or a group of tabletop gamers in a cramped dorm: If everyone comes together, does what they do best, supports their comrades when they can, sticks it out through obstacles and hardship, and maybe catches a few lucky breaks along the way, we can all be folk heroes of a sort, at least for a little while.
Steven Porfiri, Games Contributor
As I understand it, IN LEAGUE WITH DRAGONS has undergone a few thematic transfigurations since it was announced with Wizards of the Coast as a “dragon noir” rock opera. As someone who’s rolled some dice in some pretend fights, The Mountain Goats’ latest effort more so represents someone who has definitely played Dungeons and Dragons rather than representing any sort of swords and sorcery universe. Obviously there are entries like the title track and “Clemency For The Wizard King” that seem to have been written with this theme in mind, but tracks like “Younger,” “Sicilian Crest,” and “Antidote for Strychnine” are a little more subtle, while still having an adventurous lyrical content. Given the sound of the Mountain Goats and the content of “Clemency For The Wizard King” in particular, it almost seems like there’s some kind of musical FREAKY FRIDAY situation happening, and some prog rock band is playing thundering rhythms and squealing solos about the leaves changing color in upstate New York and the nostalgia for CRT TV sets.
Much of the album seems to deal with nostalgic themes and subjects. While also not explicitly swashbuckling, tracks like “Waylon Jennings Live!” and “Doc Gooden” have these notes of longing for the past that carries over into songs like “Going Invisible 2” and “Possum By Night” that feel like the youthful angst of a kid in the ‘70s or ‘80s that just wants to play D&D with his buddies or sit around and play PITFALL. This sense of outsidership factors into IN LEAGUE WITH DRAGONS, which explicitly mentions Boris Vallejo, whose work is almost synonymous with fantasy, having done art for films like CONAN THE BARBARIAN and many a pulp fantasy cover.
While not consistently the “dragon noir” rock opera John Darnielle promised, IN LEAGUE WITH DRAGONS does touch on a lot of themes that come with a fondness for D&D, but primarily nostalgia for a time when it was WAY easier to get a party going and crawl through a dungeon together.