The Mountain Goats: Jenny From Thebes

Few working artists have accumulated a richer body of lore than the Mountain Goats. Across a vast catalog spanning more than 30 years, John Darnielle has developed a mythology with enough recurring characters and references to fill its own Wiki and support a number of dedicated blogs and podcasts. The Sophoclean title of new album Jenny From Thebes announces it as a continuation of the myth cycle. A sequel to Darnielle’s 2002 lo-fi masterpiece All Hail West Texas, his latest album revisits some of the most beloved characters and settings in the Mountain Goats universe.

That earlier album was a loose collection of story fragments about down-and-out people; making out the whole picture required some close reading. Jenny From Thebes doesn’t continue the story so much as fill out its absent center: Jenny, a recovering addict who runs a safehouse in a small West Texas town. When Jenny has appeared in other Mountain Goats songs, she has functioned as a vague emblem of freedom: riding in on her custom Kawasaki motorcycle, promising escape. These songs bring Jenny back down to the sordid everyday while also imbuing that desperate reality with the soft glow of magic.

Inside John Darnielle’s Boiling Brain

Despite the thematic callback to Darnielle’s home-recorded early work, the Mountain Goats have never sounded so baroque. Working with producer Trina Shoemaker, the now-standard lineup of Darnielle, bassist Peter Hughes, drummer Jon Wurster, and multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas gets a lift with expansive string and horn arrangements, and Bully’s Alicia Bognanno contributes icy stabs of echoing guitar. If this is a rock opera, it is a soft-rock opera. The plush arrangements insulate the often brutal scenes depicted in the lyrics. The jittery strums and surging backbeat on “Murder at the 18th St. Garage” make its titular crime—Jenny killing her scumbag landlord—feel like a victory. In the standout “Water Tower,” a forensic account of Jenny disposing of the body turns into a lullaby: “Float downstream,” Darnielle murmurs over a soft bed of guitars. It’s the sound of tragedy recollected from afar, not reported live from the scene.

In a way, Jenny From Thebes is precisely about the struggle to find the right distance: from the past, from other people, from ourselves. Darnielle is a master of the perspective shot; he is often at his most vivid when writing in the second person. The narrator of “Cleaning Crew,” a loping response song to West Texas’ “Source Decay,” imagines the pain of the addressee in medically precise detail, almost as if it were her own. The tenderness of these observations, together with the warmth of the vocal delivery, ensures that it takes a few verses to realize that the song is actually a farewell.

Early in the strings-driven “Same as Cash,” where the speaker tries to reconstruct Jenny’s inner life, this realization emerges: “I can only see the scene secondhand/I can only try to understand.” This statement underlines Jenny’s tragic flaw: a compulsion to take on others’ burdens until she breaks. It also happens to be a pretty good encapsulation of what the Mountain Goats do well. Darnielle has spent his career trying to get inside the heads of injured athletes, dead celebrities, pagan warriors, and struggling junkies, finding the humanity in their particular suffering. The acknowledgement that we can never have total access is far from damning—it’s what gives his songs their license to operate. Perhaps that’s why those lines about our flailing attempts to connect appear near the beginning of “Same as Cash” and not the end. Rather than cutting the story short, they clear the ground for it to continue.

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The Mountain Goats: Jenny From Thebes