I attack The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle with my Prowling Caracal and there’s nothing he can do about it.
Darnielle takes the damage and adjusts his dice counter accordingly. The moment of triumph is fleeting as in his next turn he plays a sorcery card to kill my Senate Courier, a regal owl creature that was going to be my advantage by air.
Such are the tragedies of mystical warfare – or more accurately, the card game Magic: The Gathering.
We’re holed up in a conference room at game publisher Wizards of the Coast’s Renton, Wash. headquarters, where earlier this day Darnielle announced the new Mountain Goats album In League With Dragons via a live-streamed acoustic performance underneath a giant model dragon. The record is hyped up for its ties and allusions to the classic roleplaying game Dungeons & Dragons, but I’ll soon learn that it’s much more than that.
It’s been a while since I’ve played Magic. Darnielle has only just recently begun to dip his toes back into the game. With a representative from Wizards of the Coast in the room coaching us through, we fumble our way through our duel – at one point he waves at me and writes “Don’t forget to draw a card” on a whiteboard behind Darnielle’s head.
After drawing his initial hand, Darnielle furrows his brow and openly contemplates if he should throw away his cards and redraw.
“You’ve got to listen to your heart,” I say.
“I don’t have a heart,” he replies.
Darnielle is no stranger to tabletop gaming. It’s the impetus for this whole conversation, with In League With Dragons hyped up for its inspiration taken from Dungeons & Dragons. (With limited time together, Magic made more sense to get our supernatural gaming fix.)
His first encounter with Dungeons & Dragons nearly soured his whole experience. An avid fan of J.R.R. Tolkien, he’d gotten wind of a D&D club at his junior high school and thought it’d align with his interests. But in his first game, he and his party encountered a ghost. Darnielle wanted to attack, but ghosts aren’t so easily taken down in D&D and the Dungeon Master informed Darnielle that trying to fight a ghost would mean certain death. Frustrated that he wasn’t afforded a “fighting chance,” he forsook the game and didn’t play again for years.
He’d reengage with tabletop gaming in 2012 after being prompted by a friend. In 2014, he’d write his debut novel, Wolf In White Van, centered around a traumatized game designer who moderates a mail-based roleplaying.
But fantasy itself has had its grip in Darnielle from an early age. As I prod him about his love of dragons, he tells me that while he most resonates with the Welsh dragons, it was seeing the traditional Chinese New Year dragon dance growing up in San Luis Obispo that piqued his interest in cryptids early on.
Even as a mere mortal, Darnielle contains multitudes. In League with Dragons rounds out what could be interpreted as a trilogy of concept records, following 2015’s wrestling themed Beat The Champ and 2017’s ode to disenchanted music of his youth Goths. In all three records, Darnielle says he uses these aspects of his personality and hobbies as a lens which guides his writing. The topics are just the foundation or gateways for Darnielle to reveal his own personal truths.
I ask Darnielle what keeps bringing him back to fantasy and why he wanted to center the genre on this project.
“It works the other way. I write what I write and then I see where I'm going with that,” Darnielle says. “I don't have a plan or a design. I write and go 'Oh that's interesting.' And I also have learned to trust that anything you're writing is somewhat autobiographical anyway.”
He looks down at the Magic cards layed out in front of him, then quickly continues.
“It's like the whoever painted this basic land,” Darnielle says, holding up a green mana card adorned with an image of a lush forest. “[The artist] is telling us something about themselves. They’re telling us something, even if they had someone say, ‘We need it to look exactly like this.’ You can’t express without in some way expressing.”
While he zealously explains this creative process, I play Arrester’s Zeal from my hand – a card that adds two damage and defense to my Prowling Caracal before I attack him directly again.
“Oh good, I'm going to die,” Darnielle says.
But he doesn’t die. Much like In League With Dragons, our match will take a few more twists and turns before it's over. Darnielle summons Bolrac-Clan Crusher, an ogre warrior who brandishes an honest to god statue as his weapon. Since Bolrac-Clan Crusher (whose name Darnielle insists on saying in full every time) is afflicted with summoning sickness, he quietly and ominously ends his turn.
Describing In League With Dragons as being about dragons is maybe a little misleading. The album began as a concept record centering around the town of Riversend and its benevolent wizard ruler. But Darnielle’s projects are never as straight-forward as they seem. What began as a fantasy rock opera shifted and changed, keeping some of the mystical elements but centering them in our reality.
“There was a whole rock opera idea and there's a bunch of songs that exist in files and notebooks that may or may not ever see the light of day,” Darnielle says between glances at the cards in his hand.
As he kept writing, the album began to turn away from the literal wizardry into something a bit more abstract while also grounded in our reality.
He tells me this right before he instructs Bolrac-Clan Crusher to attack me. With my Prowling Caracal tapped out from its last attack, I have no choice but to accept the damage. I imagine Bolrac swinging his mighty statue weaponry right into my face.
Looking at the tracklist, there are a few dead giveaways that this album is about more than dragons and mystics. Song titles like “Waylon Jennings Live!” and “Passaic 1975” are nestled next to what Darnielle calls “fantasy anchors” like “Clemency for the Wizard King” and the title track.
In execution, these ideas aren’t as incongruous as they may appear. Instead of writing a story about wizards and dragons, Darnielle began to think of what the analogs of these characters would be in different genres. The results are what Darnielle describes as “dragon-noir” – a term he says he coined just days before our match.
“It's related to how you think of stories of dragons who are growing old and who protect a single warrior instead of protecting a village – or of old wizards who are challenged,” Darnielle says. As he thought about the tradition of these fantasy stories, he began to ask himself questions about his own noir story – primarily coming back to why characters like “the wizard” and “the dragon” are the way they are.
“There was a storyline, now there's a vibe,” he says.
In League With Dragons is brimming with said “vibe.” There are none of the musical touchstones that you might think of with fantasy music – lutes and lyres come to mind. Performing with a full-band, Darnielle has constructed perhaps the lushest and appropriately brooding albums of his career this side of Tallahassee. It doesn’t hurt that he has a stacked lineup backing him up that includes drummer Jon Wurster, Bernice’s Thom Gill, arranger Johnnie Spence, producer Owen Pallet and more.
Opener “Done Bleeding,” comes into view with a steady, looming bassline, a rock-solid kick-drum, and flourishes of a piano. Lead single “Younger” makes allusions to giving “thanks to the local gods,” flaming torches, and making a grave for Mycenaean Sparta king Menelaus before spiraling into a wondrous saxophone solo (because how are you going to have a noir without some moody sax?).
“I've been getting into spy fiction. It's very funny because I'm a man of a certain age. Guys my age, they just start buying spy novels. They just do,” Darnielle says. “I have found ones that satisfy my… Oh god, he's got a Planeswalker. I'm dead... I'm dead. I'm dead! I'm dead.”
His thought is interrupted as I summon Dovin, Architect of Law to the battlefield. As a Planeswalker, Dovin functions as a sort of teammate with his own health counters and abilities. Darnielle is rightfully threatened by my new bald, blue magical bud.
Darnielle and I try our best to keep our conversation going, but both of us are now getting distracted by the imaginary bloodshed on the table. While I’ve been able to maintain something of an advantage throughout the fight, the balance quickly shifts. Much like the best Mountain Goats songs that catch you off guard with their clever narrative arcs, Darnielle makes a surprising move.
Tapping an astronomical eight mana, Darnielle summons End-Raze Forerunners – a card depicted by devilish, ravenous, blood-covered boars. The boars have vigilance (they never have to rest), trample (even if I block with one of my creatures, the excess damage still may go through and attack my life points), and haste (they can attack me right away after being summoned).
To put it bluntly, I’m screwed.
The man who wrote The Sunset Tree launches an all-out assault on me with his End-Raze Forerunners and Bolrac-Clan Crusher and I can feel my own sunset coming. I sacrifice my Spirit of the Spires to block, skewered by the might of his Forerunners. I’m taken down to just one life point.
I attack him one last time with my Prowling Caracal – a futile move that won’t matter in the end, but at least lowers Darnielle’s health to three points before he destroys me once and for all with a final blow from good ol’ Bolrac-Clan Crusher.
Throughout our entire match, neither one of us ever plays a dragon. It’s a bit ironic, considering how much we broached the topic across our conversation. But it’s also oddly appropriate.
When Darnielle and I discuss the hallmarks of “dragon-noir,” should the genre grow into something more, he imagines a world where dragons and mythical beasts play an ancillary role. As such, only one dragon is referenced on In League With Dragons, blotting out the sun with its massive wings on the country-twinged title track.
For how clever In League With Dragons is with its concept and skillfully executed parallels and imagery, one of the album’s biggest highlights is its testament to following your inspiration without being prescriptive. As fun as it sounds to listen to a Mountain Goats album about dragons, what we got is something truer to Darnielle’s soul-seeking.
In Magic, you might get dealt a hand at the beginning of the game that has you feeling confident or maybe uneasy. But you never really know what’s going to happen until you’re tapping your mana and squaring up against your opponent. You have to make yourself open to the potential calamities and surprises that wait ahead.
If you do that, not even Bolrac-Clan Crusher can bring you down.
'In League With Dragons' is out April 26 via Merge Records. Revisit the Mountain Goats' 2017 session on KEXP below.
It's the third single from their upcoming record In League With Dragons
In League with Dragons is the band's seventeenth studio album
The Mountain Goats will transport listeners to olden days with their sci-fi/fantasy-inspired album In League With Dragons, out April 26th via Merge Records. Hear the first single "Younger" and watch the band perform LIVE from Wizards of the Coast.