By Nikayla Goddard, June 6 2019 —
Riding a fine line between enchanting and haunting, nostalgic and expectant, The Mountain Goats’ seventeenth studio album In League with Dragons provides a patchwork quilt of emotions in all twelve tracks. Channelling strong, occasionally discomforting, essences of tabletop roleplay games like Dungeons and Dragons, the album captures a fantastical escape from reality. Much like how games like D&D speak of humanity through metaphors and adventures in fantasy worlds, In League with Dragons does the same, with style.
One component of the album that is particularly exceptional is how distinct each song is from another while still maintaining a thread of hopefulness and underlying unease. The album swings between more upbeat songs like the title track or “Doc Gooden,” and somber, disquieting tracks like “Going Invisible 2” and “An Antidote for Strychnine.” This odd sensation is encapsulated in the opening track “Done Bleeding,” recalling a dreary reality pocketed with wished moments of escapism in the piano and guitar riffs between a steady drumbeat.
The next track “Younger” transports us into a fantasy world, conjuring a darker setting that is readying for war. The tension that the imagery creates through the paced but foreboding music is captured in the lyrics “Big smile on my face / Capsule just in case / Underneath my tongue” that gives an otherwise normal D&D adventure snapshot an unnerving bite. “Done Bleeding” and “Younger” together set the tone for the rest of the album, which picks up in mood but carries the subtle undercurrent of a blurred reality/fantasy world.
Other songs that reference D&D include “Clemency for the Wizard King,” “Possum by Night,” the titular “In League with Dragons,” and “Sicilian Crest.” These tracks are performed in different styles but hold a fascination with fantasy other songs in the album can’t hold a candle to in terms of simple but vivid imagery. “Clemency for the Wizard King” in particular strikes a balance between light guitar and simple two-toned lyrics that transports you to that forest glade the referenced characters stand in.
Not all the songs in the album are inspired by D&D — “Doc Gooden” recalls the former-Major League Baseball pitcher with a catchy riff, and “Waylon Jennings Live!” channels the titular singer-songwriter through modernized Western vibes in a similar manner to the shades of country in the title track.
The Closing track, “Sicilian Crest” encapsulates the ‘call to adventure’ of many fantasy stories. It’s also a final pull from reality into this new world — the lyrics urge you to “Wait all your life to see what you see” and “Open up your eyes and be free.” With synthesizer beats reminiscent of the 70s and 80s when tabletop roleplaying games were coming into their own, this hopeful song finishes off the album beautifully.
It’s commonly acknowledged among those who play D&D that any character you play is a piece of your own essence. Regardless of how your characters act in comparison to you in real life, because you take the time and effort to play them they are a part of you as much as you are a part of them. I have no doubt that the heart put into this album is much the same for both The Mountain Goats and anyone entranced by the variety and power of each song.