The comedian James Adomian specializes in impressions, and one of his best is Jesse Ventura, always pronounced like the defensive fortification. As a World Wrestling Federation star during the 1980s, the naval veteran and future-ex-Minnesota-governor and Harvard-fellow played “The Body,” an arrogant devotee of California beaches and physical fitness. Adomian’s Ventura acts as if that sneering assurance was an act he never dropped, e.g. while discussing the self-refuting name of his TruTV series Conspiracy Theory: “I wanted to call it Questionable Information with Jesse Ventura, but the network wouldn’t go for it. They wanted Old Wives’ Tales Whispered on a Sunday Picnic Blanket to Jesse ‘The Generous Lover’ Ventura. Or Barstool Hearsay Overheard by Jesse ‘The Day Drunk’ Ventura.”
I was never a wrestling fan myself. I first encountered Jesse Ventura via Predator, alongside an Arnold Schwarzenegger just emerging from his “impassive meat golem” phase into the manic unreality of Total Recall and Last Action Hero. Pro wrestlers would show up in the action movies I watched as a kid, but they seldom got the quips or the metatextual Hamlet jokes. They were relegated to mute muscle. I only belatedly appreciated what a waste this was, the idiosyncratic skills modern wrestling cultivates. It’s live theatre simultaneously broadcasting to millions of TV viewers, a melodrama of unstable feuds, camp without any aristocratic detachment. You don’t just have to take a folding-chair beating and get up again; you also have to look into a camera and snarl that your rivals will all be flamboyantly annihilated. In the struggle between heels (enraging, captivating villains) and faces (boring good guys), a persona might somersault across those boundaries mid-fight. The most insanely Jesse-Ventura-ish line he’s ever said came from the Governor, not the Body: “Until you’ve hunted man, you haven’t hunted yet.”
Not that anybody can necessarily move from ring to screen. Despite not following wrestling—mainly I hear about it from friends—I have still somehow seen 2006’s The Marine, essentially a 90-minute excuse for ultra-face John Cena to hit Robert Patrick with a truck. Although the renamed WWE was pursuing its own film productions by then, Dwayne Johnson (a.k.a. The Rock) became the first true ex-wrestler movie star more or less on his own. Repeatedly turning from heel to face and back again, he was charismatic enough to turn a mere raised eyebrow into a signature taunt. What’s irresistible about The Rock is how he wears his aerial bomb of a frame so lightly, delighted to lip-sync Taylor Swift or vamp next to a Lamborghini on Instagram. There’s a scene in Fast & Furious 6 where he genially, playfully crushes some guy’s hand. The Rock’s face is a series of poses flush with self-aware mischief. He always seems to be thinking, “Isn’t it hilarious and cool that I’m a giant man?”
The new Mountain Goats album Beat the Champ mainly describes a wrestling era long before this, before even the cable-TV-driven boom of the 1980s. The band’s songwriter and core John Darnielle grew up in southern California, where his family would go to matches at the Grand Olympic Auditorium. Back then wrestling was still obscurely territorial. The local scene had a big Mexican-American presence, and “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” hails Darnielle’s childhood hero, an avatar of righteousness his own violent stepfather would never be: “You called him names to try to get beneath my skin / Now your ashes are scattered on the wind.” The 1970s concluded a sustained decline of wrestling’s popularity, and Darnielle has always been sensitive to people living in ruin. Whether due to mental anguish, abusive environments, or a relationship resembling the weapons black market, his characters often carry festering trauma—fixated on some cryptic detail of a bricked-up room, and rituals to ward off the creature scraping at its walls.
In a Mountain Goats song all this might be told with bleak humour (“Autoclave,” about feeling universally incapable of love, quotes the Cheers theme), or tenderness, or both. “This Year” has become a casual mantra: “There will be feasting, and dancing, in Jerusalem next year / I am going to make it through this year if it kills me.” Darnielle sometimes suggests that apocalypse can resolve itself as a more mundane transfiguration. On the unreleased “You Were Cool,” addressing an outcast who once walked his high school atop spiked heels, he sings: “I hope you love your life now, like I love mine / I hope the painful memories only flex their power over you a little of the time.” Every Mountain Goats fan will probably eventually joke that there is no such thing as a casual Mountain Goats fan. At their last show in Toronto, as Darnielle began playing “You Were Cool,” the teen goth couple ahead of me felt for each other’s hands, and I burst into tears.
Until 2002’s Tallahassee, Darnielle typically recorded Mountain Goats material at home, relying on a few simple guitar chords and a Panasonic boombox. It’s not something he romanticizes; tape hiss was an economic necessity rather than a cherished aesthetic. Revered for his lyrics, he’s spent the past decade giving them increasingly elaborate adornments. “Heel Turn 2” disperses itself with a sombre piano coda several minutes long. Much of Beat the Champ was banged out on the keys, in fact, and Darnielle has become confident enough to try scattered jazz playing with “Fire Editorial.” He told the writer Ned Raggett: “I started playing the piano on records in 2005. I’ve come a little bit of a ways … I don’t sit around with textbooks and stuff, but I listen to Duke Ellington, and I play some Gershwin, and I try and figure out what they’re up to. I can’t write like they write, but I can take some of the things I’ve learned from playing their stuff and try to weasel little bits of it in.”
Darnielle has been playing with drummer Jon Wurster and the dapper bassist Peter Hughes for some years now, and you can tell. Wurster is a hauntingly restrained presence, drifting through each arrangement as needed—I always think of the moment in Transcendental Youth’s “White Cedar” where he interrupts a sadly tranquil monologue with two crashing hits. Beat the Champ features a couple of traditional bounce-around-the-room Mountain Goats tracks, like “Choked Out,” but embracing embellishment flatters their more conceptual tendencies. Darnielle likes album-framing conceits and songs numbered a la sculpted miniatures; his “Going to _______” series followed people en route to various destinations, usually involving a decisive yet transitory crisis. The new “Foreign Object” is spiritually a horrorcore track, and blared through swampy horns it sounds like Weird Al doing Ganksta N-I-P: “I’m gonna stab you in the eye with a foreign object / I personally will stab you in the eye with a foreign object.”
One of the best songs on Beat the Champ is about Quebecois wrestler Luna Vachon watching her house burn down, as “tongues of fire reach up for the sky.” I loved how Darnielle described her clip (which you really should watch) in a Vulture list of his favourite ringside promos: “That’s, like, a style of theatre from the time of Brecht. Decadent prewar Berlin.” If Beat the Champ has a Sally Bowles, it’s the narrator of “Werewolf Gimmick.” He may not actually be good at wrestling, or anything else besides the lycanthrope lifestyle, but he’ll fall to the mat howling: “Blood pooling on the canvas as the atmosphere gets hushed / Bring your heroes to the wolf’s den, watch them all get crushed / Get told to maybe dial it back backstage later on / Everyone still in this building right now: dead before the dawn.” Sure, we all know pro wrestling is scripted. But would you stop to ask a werewolf about the intricacies of his stage persona?