John Darnielle's greatest talent is his ability to create characters; he can draw a compact but vivid portrait of a person's life in a small space, and he's put that skill to good use as both a novelist and as a songwriter. Given his fascination with the lives of others, it makes a certain sense that he was once an avid fan of multiplayer role-playing games, in particular Dungeons & Dragons, where one can build a fresh identity of their own, and this passion provides the backdrop for 2019's In League with Dragons. However, though Darnielle initially described the project as a "partial rock opera" about a small town ruled by a wizard and bedeviled by dragons, somewhere down the line he started following other paths, and this album's strongest debt to D&D comes in the way the stories and the people who populate them can change with the roll of the dice. As a consequence, In League with Dragons lacks the coherent through-line that helped make 2015's Beat the Champ and 2017's Goths so satisfying. But as a set of songs, In League with Dragons is absolutely up to the high standards of the Mountain Goats' recent output. The shadowy ne'er-do-well of "Waylon Jennings Live!," the ballplayer whose best days are behind him in "Doc Gooden," the hapless and quietly desperate narrator of "An Antidote for Strychnine," and the ambitious small-time musician of "Passaic 1975" are the sort of people who could have been created by no one but John Darnielle, and he gives each of them a certain dignity along with their dreams and failures, and they feel all the more real for his literary conceits. Darnielle's melodies are nearly as effective as his lyrics, and now that he's finally nailed down a steady backing band that complements his music (Matt Douglas on guitar and woodwinds, bassist Peter Hughes, and drummer Jon Wurster), this album flows with an easy assurance and a tone that's light but deeply resonant. In League with Dragons is a quietly brilliant album that gets stronger with each spin, and the fact the Mountain Goats can generally crank out something this good every 24 to 36 months suggests Darnielle may be one of America's more important natural resources.
AllMusic Review by Mark Deming