Do folk still make rock operas in the 21st century? Seems like it as The Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle says that ‘In League With Dragons’ was originally supposed to be a series of songs about a “besieged seaside community called Riversend, ruled by a benevolent wizard.” Maybe Rick Wakeman wasn’t available to play the keyboards but the project morphed into this collection of slick songs which continue the sonic direction taken on their last album, ‘Goths’. Darnielle remains a whip smart writer, a cross between Willie Vlautin and Eef Barzley if you wish, with several of the songs here mini sketches of contemporary wizards such as rock stars and sportsmen.
‘Passaic 1975’ is the tale of a jaded rock star reliant on a teleprompter to remember his lyrics, isolated from reality his sole purpose is to urge his audience to get high. ‘Waylon Jennings Live!’ adopts a country sound as a small time drug dealer attends a Waylon concert enjoying the experience of, “Looking up at the one man in this room / Who’s handled more cocaine than me.” Unfortunately, ‘Possum By Night’ isn’t about the great George Jones but actually seems to be about a night in the life of a possum, figuring out how best to scavenge from a dump truck. ‘Doc Gooden’ meanwhile finds the one time baseball star reminiscing on his glory days.
Elsewhere there’s a palpable sense of menace on the brooding ‘An Antidote For Strychnine’ while the opening song, ‘Done Bleeding’, is a powerful piano driven, string laden remorseful ballad about addiction. Wizards and dragons do figure with ‘Clemency For The Wizard King’ a whimsical slice of pastoral rock which recalls Caravan at times, as does the title track. A couple of the songs pale in comparison. ‘Younger’ opens well but ends with a sax solo which is on the wrong side of ’80s cheesiness and ‘Sicilian Crest’ crams too many words into a song which is almost yacht rock. Overall, however, it’s a cool listen and miles away from what one might expect given the Tolkien like cover art.