John Darnielle has made many, many records but this may be the first time he has written about a benevolent wizard. Much of his back catalogue is moulded around the contours of an explicit vision and these became more personal as we entered the twenty-first century. His lo-fi patter always managed to conjure indelible images of small-town America and its inhabitants, but the focus of recent albums has been more unpredictable, claiming religion and wrestling among their subject matter.
Although new record In League With Dragons certainly started off as fantasy concept, various influences resulted in a shift “…as I thought about my wizard, his health failing, the invasion by sea almost certain to wipe out half his people, I thought about what such a person might look like in the real world: watching a country show at a midwestern casino, or tryout pitching for an American League team years after having lit up the marquees.” What we end up with is the best of both worlds that Darnielle seems to exist in. The fantasy that is America.
The clean piano of opener ‘Done Bleeding’ is complimented by an all-American, 80s style guitar melody until minor key changes add mystery along with the shimmering synths. It’s sparse but not in the way we remember from Darnielle’s past. There’s a lushness to appreciate here and this is maintained by first single ‘Younger’; up-tempo and summery acoustic tones are initially matched by twinkling keys, but the Indiana native’s clipped vocals remind us of darker times to come, arriving in the noirish sax solo at the song’s clashing conclusion.
The album may have it’s conceptual origins then, but it’s during the moments of personal introspection when it reaches the peaks. Surprisingly, this is mostly during the second half when ‘In League With Dragons’ country twang is followed by the rolling ‘Doc Gooden’, which is blessed with a recognisable narrative structure to go along with the visual flourishes we’ve come to expect. ‘Waylon Jennings Live!’ returns us to a more country-themed tone, this time cut with a dose of dark humour in its first-person anecdotes.
There may be a shift in style but the tone has generally been warmhearted so far. ‘Cadaver Sniffing Dog’ surprises therefore with its more impulsive rhythms and unpredictable electric guitars. It also possesses that wonderful turn of phrase that makes Darnielle so compelling. This darker tone is maintained with ‘An Antidote For Strychnine’; Carpenter-esque synths create the melancholy needlework which a bassline gently brocades until more unpredictable organs and crashing cymbals disturb this thoughtful embroidery. It’s a brilliant, atmospheric highlight from the record.
Final track ‘Sicilian Crest’ has a TV theme quality in its upbeat indie but ultimately, what Darnielle has achieved on this record, is a “…rebellion against irresistible tides, the lush vistas of decay, necessary alliances.” Once again, he’s challenged the concept of borders and done so in a convincing and fascinating way. Whether ‘Dragon Noir’ will become a viable genre is another matter.