the Mountain Goats | Jenny from Thebes | MRG841
Jenny from Thebes began its life as many albums by the Mountain Goats do, with John Darnielle
playing the piano until a lyric emerged. That lyric, “Jenny was a warrior / Jenny was a thief / Jenny hit
the corner clinic begging for relief,” became “Jenny III,” a song which laid down a challenge he’d never
taken up before: writing a sequel to one of his most beloved albums.
The Mountain Goats’ catalog is thick with recurring characters—Jenny, who originally appears in the
All Hail West Texas track bearing her name, as well as in “Straight Six” from Jam Eater Blues and
Transcendental Youth side two jam “Night Light,” is one of these, someone who enters a song
unexpectedly, pricking up the ears of fans who are keen on continuing the various narrative threads
running through the Mountain Goats’ discography before vanishing into the mist. In these songs, Jenny
is largely defined by her absence, and she is given that definition by other characters. She is running
from something. These features are beguiling, both to the characters who’ve told her story so far and to
the listener. They invite certain questions: Who is Jenny, really? What is she running from? Well, she’s a
warrior and a thief, and, this being an album by the Mountain Goats, it’s a safe bet whatever she’s
fleeing is something bad. Something catastrophically bad.
Jenny from Thebes is the story of Jenny, her southwestern ranch style house, the people for whom that
house is a place of safety, and the west Texas town that is uncomfortable with its existence. It is a story
about the individual and society, about safety and shelter and those who choose to provide care when
nobody else will.
This is what a follow-up to All Hail West Texas entails. But if you think about the Mountain Goats as they
were in 2001, when Darnielle wrote and recorded that album on his own, mostly into his Panasonic
RX-FT500 boombox, and how they are now as the recording and touring outfit of Darnielle, Peter
Hughes, Matt Douglas, and Jon Wurster, you may find yourself asking how. That occurred to Darnielle,
“If we’re going to do a sequel to a record that was recorded almost entirely on a boombox,” he asks,
“why not do the opposite and make it as big as possible?”
Decamping to Tulsa, Oklahoma’s legendary The Church Studio with Grammy-winning
producer/engineer Trina Shoemaker (Sheryl Crow’s The Globe Sessions), that is exactly what the
Mountain Goats did. Jenny from Thebes is a lush collection of showtunes, pushing Darnielle as a vocalist
and the Mountain Goats as a band, broadening their sonic palette once again by leaning into influences
like Godspell, Jim Steinman, and The Cars. The resulting album cuts a path that is simultaneously full of
allusions longtime Mountain Goats fans will spin entire mythologies from while also being their most
inviting record for those who’ve yet to be converted to the cause.
Lifted by Matt Douglas’ horn and string arrangements, the dreamy guitar of Bully leader (and Bleed Out
producer) Alicia Bognanno, and backing vocals from Kathy Valentine of The Go-Go’s (“Only One Way,”
“Same as Cash,” “Going to Dallas”) and Matt Nathanson (“Fresh Tattoo”), Jenny from Thebes is a
widescreen musical in scope, a melodrama of richly detailed characters and sweeping emotions.
The west Texas the Mountain Goats conjure for Jenny is huge and already crumbling to the ground
when we meet her in lead single “Clean Slate,” where a new arrival to the safehouse finds it nearly full,
his host beyond exhaustion. Her burdens are heavy, and the measures they cause her to take have
consequences that scale well beyond anything she could have anticipated when she decided to open
her home to others. Such gestures are noble and doomed.
“You can’t be the person everyone relies on to take care of them and keep them safe for too long,”
Darnielle says of the reality of these spaces. “It eventually causes so much stress that it threatens to
Ironically, that same stress makes it impossible for Jenny to see that she’s on the verge of being broken
until it’s too late. Explaining the title of the album, Darnielle notes that Jenny is not unlike a character
from Greek literature, someone on the verge of an unimaginable tragedy whose signs and portents will
not make themselves known to her until she finds herself amidst the wreckage. “These things never
happen in isolation,” he says. “One bad event leads to and is the reason for another bad event. Jenny
should know that you can’t keep a safehouse in a west Texas town, but she’s too wrapped up in the
process and has to go through the loss to understand how it happened.”
Whether or not she comes to understand how it happened, the events of Jenny from Thebes set Jenny
on the run. A woman and her custom yellow and black Kawasaki held in the memories of a vanishing
few, someone who held the gate for as long as she could, as a warrior might, before disappearing into
the night like a thief.