On Monday, January 28th, indie rock band The Mountain Goats a performance at the Wizards of the Coast headquarters in Renton, WA, with frontman John Darnielle singing and playing guitar in front of a massive dragon statue named Mitzy. The reason: to promote their upcoming album In League with Dragons, inspired by the seminal Wizards of the Coast tabletop roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons.
The Mountain Goats had been alluding to an upcoming album in the week leading up to its release. On January 22nd, while their spring North American tour, they teased that the tour was only “the first bit” of “much news.” Those who received tour emails got a snippet of what that news would be in a at the end of the email—a series of pictures and letters that translated to the upcoming song “Possum by Night." Several “breadcrumbs” were left on the band members’ social media pages, beginning with a on the Mountain Goats Instagram, another puzzle that would later be revealed as the song title “Clemency for the Wizard King.” On January 25th, John Darnielle a picture of outlaw country singer Waylon Jennings, corresponding to the Dragons song “Waylon Jennings Live!” Two more rebus tweets followed: Merge Records, who will be releasing Dragons, posted one for "Doc Gooden" on January 26, and drummer Jon Wurster posted a "Passaic 1975" puzzle the day before the album announcement.
Finally, on Monday, a from the band announced the album name, full track listing, and album art designed by Australian artist Elton D’Souza, also known as Studio Skies & Water. In the announcement, Darnielle described how the album began life as a “rock opera about a besieged seaside community called Riversend” before other thoughts and themes came together: “rebellion against irresistible tides, the lush vistas of decay, necessary alliances.” His hope is that the album will lead to a new genre called “dragon noir,” a vaguely defined term that will become more clear with the release of the album.
The Mountain Goats are not the first to have injected their love of fantasy into their music: the power metal band Summoning writes all of their songs in the universe of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle-Earth, while Anais Mitchell’s Orpheus concept album Hadestown was recently adapted into a Broadway musical. If Dragons is anything like past Mountain Goats releases, however, it will be less a straightforward concept album and more a collection of thematically coherent songs. In the Goats repertoire, only Tallahassee, which tells the story of the dysfunctional Alpha Couple’s catastrophic move to Florida, and All Hail West Texas, subtitled as "fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys," can qualify as concept albums. Recent releases have been more thematic: 2017’s Goths made frequent allusions to the eponymous subculture, 2015’s Beat the Champ told the stories of several professional wrestlers, and each song title on 2009’s The Life of the World to Come was named after a relevant Bible verse.
John Darnielle’s songwriting technique tends toward the autobiographical: 2004 LP We Shall All Be Healed, which detailed Darnielle’s drug addiction, was followed by an account of his stepfather’s abuse in 2005’s The Sunset Tree. Even his more abstract releases have invoked his childhood obsessions, first professional wrestling and goth music, and now tabletop roleplaying. In March 2017, Darnielle gave an with the official D&D podcast, Dragon Talk, where he revealed that he briefly played Dungeons & Dragons in middle school and took particular interest in the “dice and numbers and memorization” storytelling method, which prompted a “moral outrage” when his character died in combat against a monster that he was convinced he could beat. Dungeons & Dragons, with its complex lore, heavy trivia, and collaborative gaming nature, lends itself well to the kind of storytelling the Goats employ, based in obscure knowledge but universal emotions of loneliness, internal struggle, and triumph over adversity.
One song was released in conjunction with the album announcement, a six-minute epic called “Younger” that introduces listeners to the D&D world of Riversend. Before multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas’ closing saxophone solo, Darnielle barks “I knew what those figures meant / And what they hoped to represent / When I was younger.” Acoustically, “Younger” bears a marked departure from Goths, which declared “No comped vocals. No pitch correction. No guitars.” Darnielle’s heavy acoustic guitar comes through right from the start and carries until the sax solo, almost overpowering the vocals, which sound as if Darnielle was singing through a plastic cup. Between the solo Wizards of the Coast performance and the guitar–heavy “Younger,” Dragons looks as if it’s shaping up to be a return to the early–2010s Goats sound characterized by Heretic Pride, All Eternals Deck, and Transcendental Youth, albums that featured accents of piano and string instruments but were still squarely focused on Darnielle and his guitar. Of course, knowing the Goats, more breadcrumbs will be dropped and more D20s will be rolled in the months predating the album.
In League with Dragons is set to be released on April 26 and is available for pre-order now through Merge Records.