When The Mountain Goats announced In League with Dragons, and you saw that the announcement was sponsored by Dungeons & Dragons publisher Wizards of the Coast, you may have made some assumptions. You may have been expecting a concept album set on Toril, full of songs about the gods and heroes of Faerûn. Unfortunately, if that was your expectation, you failed your perception check. The album is not that by a long shot.
Frontman John Darnielle has been upfront in interviews that—while the album’s loose narrative about a wizard defending a town from a dragon takes inspiration from D&D among other fictional works—it’s set in the modern world and it’s not centered on Dungeons and Dragons.
It’s not really a concept album in the traditional sense and there’s no plot. Without knowing the titles of the album or the songs, you’d be forgiven if you didn’t realize there was any fantasy connection at all. It could just as easily be allegory.
That’s not to say In League With Dragons is bad. The record is a brilliant album—among the best in Darnielle’s discography.
As expected from a songwriter and novelist of Darnielle’s caliber, the lyrics are top-notch. While the wizard-and-dragon theme may not come through, the songs stand alone fabulously.
“Doc Gooden,” for example, is actually as much about baseball as the title suggests—Dwight “Doc” Gooden was a pitcher for the Mets through the ’80s. It’s about a player whose star is fading, telling a better story than most baseball movies. And it admirably cribs the LL Cool J line “Don’t call it a comeback / I’ve been here for years.”
Notably, however, what really stand out are the arrangements and the band’s supporting cast is at the top of its game.
“Done Bleeding” opens the album with a prominent bass line and pounding percussion, unusual and welcome for a band that usually downplays drums in favor of guitar. “Younger” takes a step further, adding an orchestral richness and complexity to prominent percussion and a simple three-note piano refrain. The non-gratuitous saxophone solo at the end doesn’t hurt either.
Even more impressively, the band nails entirely separate genres as easily as their more standard fare. The title track is very much a country song. It has all the twangy trappings, up to and including slide guitar, and it still works as well as the rest.
Hopefully the very devoted Mountain Goats fans aren’t put off by the successful thematic deception roll, or the changes in sound after nearly 25 years. It’s not as drastic as the gradual polishing of their sound from the band’s low-fi solo act roots, and they’re all very much Mountain Goats songs in every way that counts.
Maybe the band’s 18th album will be set on the Prime Material plane. There’s still time for that Celtic-tinged ballad about wood elves that practically writes itself.
Follow editor Daniel J. Willis at Twitter.com/BayAreaData.