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Aging Phantoms

John Darnielle’s songwriting is characterized in part by his athletic similes and the way he can assemble a whole life with just a few details, but his most iconic lines—the ones you’re most likely to hear en masse at one of his concerts—dispense with the wordplay and hit you straight in the stomach. The most popular of these lyrics are typically nihilistic ("I hope we both die!") or empowering ("I will make it through this year if it kills me!") or both ("Hail Satan!”). “It’s real sweet to grow old,” the climactic line of “The Legend of Chavo Guerrero,” doesn’t serve either of those purposes, yet still wields the same kind of power. Anchored by two lovely bits of assonance, the line conveys a calm assurance about aging that is so rare in music that it almost sounds obstinate—a perfect sentiment for an album about living with zest, maturing with dignity, and dying fulfilled.

The album is also about wrestling, of course. The gatefold states in bold letters, “This right here is an album about professional wrestling,” and there’s no reason to believe Darnielle prioritized allegory or grandiose meditations on life over the half-nelsons and sunset flips. Still, it’s easy to hear the wrestling as a metaphor for youth in general—a vividly felt time when life feels like a fight. You hurt and get hurt, and you assume different guises to find success. There’s little need for a writer to embellish tales of sport to fit a greater metaphor; the evergreen appeal of sports is in how these matches reflect the major obstacles and crossroads of life in microcosm. Extend that to an athlete’s full life and you get a reflection of your own life, rendered in dramatic, often poetic, detail.

“The Legend of Chavo Guerrero” is the only song on the record in which the first-person narration draws on Darnielle’s actual experience. “Before a black and white TV in the middle of the night,” he sings. “I’m lying on the floor, I’m bathed in blue light.” Darnielle introduce...