In League with Dragons continues John Darnielle’s trend of using The Mountain Goats to examine specific subcultures that he’s been fascinated by/participated in, with NPR announcing it as a “Dungeons & Dragons-Inspired Album”. It’s only appropriate that it’s produced by Owen Pallett, a man who previously performed under the moniker Final Fantasy. But it has a far more tenuous connection to its concept than Beat the Champ had to wrestling or Goths had to, well, goths. Nevermind that the music doesn’t sound particularly ornate, the lyrics are grounded and from the perspective of characters that Darnielle can relate to, such as when his narrators reflect on their histories of substance abuse on ‘Passaic 1975’ (written from the perspective of Ozzy Osbourne) and ‘Waylon Jennings Live!’ He even takes a marsupialian POV on ‘Possum By Night’, the promise of which is lessened by its similarity to other piano-led Goats songs and a lack of descriptive imagery you come to expect from Darnielle.

But it wouldn’t be so much fun to be a Mountain Goats fan if you always knew what card Darnielle was going to play next. Dragons originated as a rock opera of a wizard-governed community under attack. Though wrinkles of that concept still appear, Darnielle’s obsession with “weird noir visions” tweaked it into something else. “I thought about what such a person might look like in the real world,” Darnielle said. It might seem like fodder for a forgettable-at-best 90s kids flick, its clamshell VHS case collecting dust on the shelves of thrift shops, but through the mind of Darnielle, it’s a call for character studies about those too wounded to see their powers or who’ve often let their demons get the best of them, like hard-living retired baseball pitcher Doc Gooden. It’s perhaps not as striking as the album art might indicate, but it’s a complex piece that embraces a specific kind of geekery by never seeing it as shameful and finding more layers to it. He takes what could be novelty songs and makes them anything but.

About the only song that has an overtly tabletop RPG lens is ‘Clemency for the Wizard King,’ which is like Simon & Garfunkel at the medieval faire, not Scarborough. If anything, this is one of the darkest albums he’s written in some time. It doesn’t devastate like Get Lonely or The Sunset Tree might’ve, but empathetic ears will pick up on the power and poignancy of how Darnielle’s protagonists endure and keep on in spite of it all. Opener ‘Done Bleeding’, which references prison time and a body riddled by addiction, has varying choruses of couplets that all end with “when I get done.” As he prepares to say goodbye to his house, he tries to keep mindful of the sweeping he’s doing. In a vacuum (or in this case, a broom), there’s nothing all that sad about it, and Darnielle’s matter-of-fact delivery suggests someone who hasn’t quite yet been struck by how transitions never get easy.

Darnielle’s delivery is stoic, similar to how it was on Goths, which can lessen the vitality of some of the songs and might disappoint fans who like their Goats albums centered around a raconteur who strums his heart out and brings out the spirituality in nasality. In the climax through the end of ‘Going Invisible 2,’ he works his reverb-glazed vocals to tremendous effect against little more than a moody synth and gentle drum taps, ”I’m gonna burn it all down today and sweep all the ashes away,” starting out as a murmur and ending as a proclamation that shows he’s still the emotional zealot who wrote ‘Up the Wolves’ and ‘Going to Georgia.’

There’s also quite a lot of energy distributed through this record. The trio of Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes, and drummer Jon Wurster is one of the strongest examples of a band succeeding through each member holding their own while giving enough space for other ideas to flow in. The cymbal Wurster adds onto standout ‘Younger’ is like a great bit of seasoning that hits your taste buds when you least expected it. Contributions from multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas should also be appreciated, like his saxophone solo on the outro to the aforementioned song. On ones like the downtrodden ‘An Antidote for Strychnine,’ you wish there was more than just some flute to spice things up.

Speaking as a fan who appreciates all eras of Darnielle’s career with The Mountain Goats but who gravitates towards the more autobiographical albums (The Sunset Tree, Beat the Champ) or the ones that do more with their concepts (Tallahassee, The Life of the World to Come, All Hail West Texas, though I’m not banking on him pulling out his Panasonic boombox anytime soon), Dragons has taken some getting used to. With each listen, new details emerge, like how Darnielle lets you look on the bright side without even calling attention to it, from “It never hurts to give thanks to the broken bones
 you had to use to build your ladder” to “It’s so hard to get revenge
. The human element drags you down.” For someone like Darnielle to keep showing us his scars over two decades into his career shows that enchantment is about more than waving a wand.