From the complex, struggling characters of “All Hail West Texas” and “Tallahassee” to the harrowing personal narrative of “The Sunset Tree” to an entire album about professional wrestling, The Mountain Goats’ frontman John Darnielle has long shown himself to be a master of the concept album. The band’s latest work, “In League With Dragons,” is no exception. According to Darnielle, the album, inspired by the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragons, “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.”
“In League With Dragons” showcases Darnielle’s evolution as an artist, following in the style of “Goths’’ fuller, more polished sound. Whereas Darnielle’s earlier work resonates with direct urgency in its focused, image-oriented snapshots, “In League With Dragons” gives the impression of an epic. With their reflective tone, expansive instrumentals, and broad scope, the songs on ‘In League With Dragons’ reach back toward Darnielle’s past work from an older perspective, crafting a fuller picture of the desperation of his youth.
The album’s opening song, “Done Bleeding,” situates the listener in a sentimental sense of cleansing the wounds of the past. Over a heavy beat — evocative of fantasy-movie battles and sieges — Darnielle sings, “Clean the floors well, sweep and swab / Do a thorough job / Leave the old place nicer than I found it.” He expands upon this metaphor of rebirth throughout the song, delving into a nuanced exploration of how to handle potentially painful memories in the lines: “Take a picture or two / Just to remember the view / Leave a mark on the door / as an empty warning sign from one who’s gone before / But isn’t here anymore.” Due to his earlier reference to the “toxins the doctors found in me,” Darnielle seems to refer to his recovery from addiction in these lines, looking back on his earlier days as a dark time in his life that he intends to leave in the past, but not forget.
The title of the next song, “Younger,” makes explicit the thread of nostalgia that runs throughout the album. Here, Darnielle delves into his fantasy story, presumably adopting the perspective of the old wizard of Riversend. In “Younger” and in the following song, “Passaic 1975,” Darnielle frequently uses the imperative tense to pull the reader intimately into the speaker’s shoes. “Passaic 1975” adopts the perspective of Ozzy Osbourne, leader of the band Black Sabbath. The language of the line “Renew the assault on my lungs and liver” draws a parallel between Osbourne’s struggle with addiction and the album’s fantasy storyline, leading the listener to imagine the addicted body as a city under siege.
The sudden shift in scale between the grandiosity of “Clemency for the Wizard King” and “Possum by Night,” which is narrated from the perspective of a possum, offers a moment of peaceful relief in the album, mirrored by a slow piano melody for a soothing effect similar to that of “White Cedar” on The Mountain Goats’ 2012 album “Transcendental Youth,” which is also ripe with natural and religious imagery.
“Going Invisible 2” directly references The Mountain Goats’ earlier song “Going Invisible,” an outtake from the 2006 album “Get Lonely.” “Waylon Jennings Live!” adopts an upbeat, folk aesthetic to tell a story from the perspective of singer-songwriter Waylon Jennings, the last of Darnielle’s “real-world ex-wizards” on the album. From there, “Cadaver Sniffing Dog” and “An Antidote for Strychnine” lead into the final song. These two songs approach some of the darker content on the album from different angles — the disturbing lyrics of “Cadaver Sniffing Dog” are set to an uncannily upbeat tempo while “An Antidote for Strychnine” flows through slow, minimalistic instrumentals that amplify its apathetic, worn-down tone, until eventually the beat picks up and swells toward the final song.
“Sicilian Crest” closes the album with a triumphant piano melody, brass instrumentals, and a fast, rolling beat. On the podcast “I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats,” Darnielle described “Sicilian Crest” as “a quasi-fascist” song drawing attention to the exaggerated, tactical threats and empty reassurances through which tyrants are able to talk their way into power and “the only political song on the album.”
“In League With Dragons” showcases Darnielle’s development as an artist while working in close conversation with his earlier songs, weaving together threads of fantasy and realism in the type of intricate, personal story fans of The Mountain Goats have come to expect.