Let’s start here: this is a song about a wrestler, from an album about wrestlers. The lyrics point to turnbuckles, pinfalls, and nearly driving someone’s nose into their brain in the heat of a botched move. But “Southwestern Territory” is about as far removed from the aesthetics of professional wrestling as one can imagine, and in fact finds its heart in an emotion never portrayed on WWE: loneliness.
John Darnielle, singer and songwriter, pens literary lyrics, and “Southwestern Territory” contains some of his most vivid. It paints a mental portrait of an unnamed wrestler, as they navigate the toll their unconventional job takes on their psyche. While it contains brief descriptions of in-ring action, the heart of this narrative lies in the liminal spaces between matches: long flights, solitary cars on empty highways, the “cold, empty hall” backstage, as the wrestler waits for an announcer to call their name.
Musically, the song is calm, even atmospheric. The instrumentation — piano, clarinets, and brushed percussion — is so far removed from the world of suplexes and DDTs that we begin to float with the narrator, to see and feel the darkness of the highway, and can supplant their experience with our own.
Someone gifted me a copy of Beat the Champ for my birthday in 2015, and this opening song drew me in with its first chord. It grabbed me by the heart, reminding me of the days I spent traveling during college, visiting my family and going to jobs in various parts of the country. Though the narrator is a wrestler, the wrestler is a human being, and the emotions at play are hard to shrug off if you’ve spent any time in transient loneliness.
When it concludes, “Southwestern Territory” doesn’t offer an outcome. We are left to believe that the narrator will, as they prophesize, “die on the road someday.” In fact, the long instrumental stretch after the final chorus seems to suggest that there is yet more empty space to be filled, by more driving, waiting, and solitude.
(Song recommendation by D.R. Baker)