The Mountain Goats don’t seem like a band that celebrates anniversaries. However, if they did, they’d be celebrating their 28th year of existence in 2019. Let that sink in – 28 years! Singer/songwriter John Darnielle formed the Mountain Goats in 1991, the very same year as Operation: Desert Storm, Terminator 2: Judgement Day, and the death of Freddie Mercury. Time has marched on and, just like our lives, The Mountain Goats have evolved, matured, and experienced many changes. A lot of talented folks have passed through the Goats’ ranks as members or collaborators – including Kaki King, John Vanderslice, Annie Clark, Franklin Bruno, and many others – but Darnielle has remained the band’s only constant member. And like all of us, he has changed throughout the years. Much like every small town in any Smalltown, USA, the core foundations of the Mountain Goats’ sound remains the same while everything around it has changed. That is what we call life…

Initially from the college town of Claremont, California, Darnielle and the Goats ended up in Durham, North Carolina. With a stable line-up that includes Peter Hughes, Jon Wurster and Matt Douglas, this is a band that has continued to grow a dedicated fanbase while somehow remaining independent in almost every sense of the word. Bathed in the glow of critical success but dancing just out of reach of total world domination, Darnielle has the luxury of doing things his way and avoiding getting caught up in the trappings of the big music business machine. While Bon Iver, Fleet Foxes, Bright Eyes, Bonnie Prince Billy, and loads of other bands have fallen in and out of favor on a regular basis with critics and absent-minded hipsters, the Mountain Goats have managed to continue doing what they want without losing any of their credibility. When it was rumored – and later confirmed – that the Goats’ next album would be inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, the nerd-centric role-playing game, nobody was surprised. Instead of eye-rolling and trolling the internet, the Goats’ fanbase immediately warmed to the idea and eagerly awaited the finished project. To have that amount of trust and respect from his fans, Darnielle must be doing something right.

IN LEAGUE WITH DRAGONS is the band’s 2019 release and, as promised, it is inspired by the previously mentioned role-playing game. However, it is something more than that. With warmth and intimacy, these are songs that might dip into reality more than you think, using the game as a metaphor for this troubling role-playing world of social media that we currently live in. Then again, it could literally be about Dungeons & Dragons. While Darnielle knows the truth, the listener will ultimately decide on what the album means to them. IN LEAGUE WITH DRAGONS is remarkably tender at times, often using haunting and spacious arrangements to enhance Darnielle’s intelligent wordplay. Other songs push those lyrics forward with a jaunty Americana-influenced glee that mixes timeless music with timely messages. Songs like “Possum By Night,” “Clemency For The Wizard King,” “Doc Gooden,” “Done Bleeding,” “Cadaver Sniffing Dog,” and “Waylon Jennings Live!” are highlights from an album that meets and exceeds all expectations. That is, if you had expectations. IN LEAGUE WITH DRAGONS is a thoroughly modern release that invites the ghosts of John Denver and Jim Croce to drink at the same bar as any of Darnielle’s Indie and Alt-Rock influences. A soundtrack to our role-playing lives, IN LEAGUE WITH DRAGONS is a triumph.

Keep on truckin’,
Stephen SPAZ Schnee

(Merge Records)