The Mountain Goats Keep Their Mythology Alive with 'Jenny from Thebes'

BY Eric HillPublished Oct 25, 2023

As on long-running cable TV, recurring characters are always welcome on Mountain Goats albums. And just like the crowd-pleasing stunt episodes of any given cable show, occasionally characters pull crossovers, jumping from their given albums and speaking to each other through the shared membrane of their narratives. Such is the case with John Darnielle's Alpha Couple, the drunken duo always on the verge of divorce or dissolution, who popped up again and again in his earliest work before being given a full album of their own with 2003's Tallahassee

It's also the case with Jenny, introduced in her own song on 2002's All Hail West Texas and making occasional pop-up appearances in later songs. With Jenny from Thebes, one of Darnielle's most elusive characters gets her own turn in the spotlight.

Jenny doesn't really live in the spotlight, though. As Darnielle has explained in interviews, she's a figure mostly defined by memory and absence. The kind of friend that is instrumental in times of great turmoil that she either generates or soothes. Opening track and first single "Clean Slate" reaches back to All Hail's "Color in Your Cheeks," where Jenny is den mother to a crash pad that takes in the broken and exhausted from across the globe. The relationship between the album's narrator — a past crash pad resident — Jenny and her yellow and black Kawasaki is the framework upon which the rest of the album is built.

While All Hail West Texas was the last of Darnielle's wholly home recorded albums (besides 2020's pandemic outlier Songs for Pierre Chuvin), quickly confessed into his Panasonic RX-FT500, Jenny from Thebes shows off the ever-growing studio savvy and the three piece band who've accompanied him since 2017's Goths. Matt Douglas, the now not-so-new kid on the block, in particular delivers with string and horn arrangements that nail the low-key rock opera aura that the album puts on.

Standout tracks include "Fresh Tattoo," describing Jenny's first encounter with the narrator, introduced modestly by Darnielle at the piano before being joined by Jon Wurster's energetic drum shuffle and gradually lifting skyward as the horns buffet its wings. It's not exactly Bat Out of Hell, but it sure is something. "Same as Cash" is a kind of classic and desperately triumphant Springsteen-adjacent melodrama about the purchase of a motorcycle. It's full of quiet weeping in Wal-Mart parking lots, strings sweeping across empty spaces and some quietly supportive backing vocals by ex-Go-Go Kathy Valentine. 

Perhaps it's just the associative properties, but it feels like Jenny from Thebes manages to truly distill the manic energy of the Mountain Goats' formative phase into a maturing yet vital shape, giving it a place in the upper reaches of their pantheon. It even tosses in a signature "Going to" song, for gosh sakes! In the end Jenny and her narrator largely remain ciphers, but for a while we can ride along with them and share their worries, their communal care and catastrophes, before they ride out beyond the margins of the album, presumably into future songs.
(Merge Records)

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