The Mountain Goats: Jenny From Thebes [Album Review]

The Mountain Goats
Jenny From Thebes
Merge Records [2023]

The Mountain Goats’ singer/songwriter John Darnielle must wake up from his dreams every day with a story line and a song lyric or two. A published novelist who released his latest, Devil House last year, the artist and his band have released a new full-length album every year since 2019, and before that it was a fresh disc every two to three years. Of course, if at least some of his songs missed the mark, didn’t quite measure up to past works, but to these ears albums like Getting Into Knives, Dark in Here, and last year’s take on adventure movie soundtracks full of machismo and toxic masculinity, Bleed Out, that consistently deliver the goods: great smart songs, catchy instrumentals, and more to think about than the average songwriter can provide. Like that last one, Darnielle has often delivered a collection of songs focused by a common theme, like Goths about 80’s post/punk alternative culture, In League with Diamonds about fans of sci/fi & fantasy, or Beat the Champ’s take on the world of professional wrestling.

Darnielle introduces Jenny from Thebes as a “rock opera” written about the title character, who first appeared on the Mountain Goats’ 2002 release, All Hail West Texas. So two things about that. The Mountain Goats are a great band, often categorized as folk/rock and indie/alternative, and, yes, on several of their recent albums they leaned more heavily on edgier guitars in the mix, so yes, they rocked, by a definition we can all agree about. That said, this time around Darnielle and his bandmates—Matt Douglas, who along with Darnielle plays keyboards as well as guitars also plays sax, clarinet, flute and a variety of additional instruments, and the rhythm section of Peter Hughes on bass, and Jon Wurster on drums—shape a majority of their songs around acoustic and electric piano, with large contributions from horns and strings throughout, alongside contributions by Alicia Bognanno, and producer Tina Shoemaker. The overall effect being more of a polished, high energy pop album, with a few bright dashes of rock guitar, one solid rock song (“Murder at the 18th St. Garage”), and lots of nice jazz touches running throughout.

As for the opera storyline, it’s a tragic tale of a woman who, as the narrator in “Only One Way” suggests, “You’re gonna make a bargain with the bad guys/You’re gonna make some choices you regret,” but since “there’s no place to hide the prophecy,’ is it really her choice, her fault? Or is she just a victim of her own generous tendency to take in strays at her “southwestern ranch style house.” Darnielle says “it’s a story about the individual and society, about safety and shelter and those who choose to provide care when nobody else will.”

As with many storytellers, often it’s the attention to details that hook the listeners’ imagination, it’s something Darnielle has done with great craft for years. In “Fresh Tattoo” he describes how “you may forget the whys and wheres of an old tattoo on your forearm there/but usually, you recall the day you got one, and usually, it fades in the sun.” Once the crime has been committed, Jenny escapes on her “custom Kawasaki, chrome yellow and black,” which will eventually land in a junkyard and get melted down. Turns out there’s a body in the “Water Tower,” and our heroine ends up “in your car with your head in your hands/at the far end of the Walmart parking lot/trying not to buckle under the strain.” In the end she escapes by “Going to Dallas” or “maybe Montana/depending on the way the wind blows,” in the end joining the company of the world’s free-spirits, “Great Pirates,” which points all the way back to the original song, “Jenny” from All Hail West Texas, where she says it’s “the pirate’s life for me.” Maybe it’s not exactly Flannery O’Connor, but it’s smart, engaging imagery.

What makes all this work as a concept album, is that The Goats really do bring smart musical choices to Darnielle’s songs, often setting his darker story lines and emotional lyrics in bright, up-tempo pop/rock settings creating a wild tension. “Cleaning Crew” has a great pop hook, and a big, horn and string build-up around a lyric that begins with “you were passed out on the sofa/cigarette burns and coffee stains/loose change in your pocket/naltrexone in your veins.” Those, funny, awkward, and at times insightful juxtapositions run throughout the 12 tracks of Jenny from Thebes, right through to the closing “Great Pirates,” which sets Douglas free to explore some great jazz-filled runs on his clarinet and saxophone. It’s one of strange, dark pleasures reserved for attentive fans of The Mountain Goats.

“Clean Slate” / “Fresh Tattoo” / “Murder At The 18th St. Garage”

Sufjan Stevens / Andrew Bird / Father John Misty

Bleed Out (2022) / Dark In Here (2021) / Getting Into Knives (2020) / In League With Dragons (2019) / Goths (2017) / Beat The Champ (2015)

Official Website | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter | Bandcamp | Merge Records

Brian Q. Newcomb

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