If you are a certain type of Mountain Goats fan, you already know all about “Jenny.” You remember when she roared into the driveway on that new Kawasaki, the way the sun lit her silhouette, the pirate’s life she promised. You know that Jenny not only appears here, but in songs like “Straight Six,” “Night Light” and “Source Decay.” You know the lore, the legend, the footnotes and backstory. I cannot say this for certain, but I have a suspicion that most Mountain Goats fans are of this type. They are the kind of band—and John Darnielle the kind of songwriter and frontman—that demand devotion, that foster the kind of fanaticism usually reserved for high-fantasy epics and comic book universes. The Mountain Goats are not just an incredibly prolific indie rock band with 22 LPs spanning four decades, they are an encyclopedia, an entire world, with albums that make myth out of ‘80s goth culture, underground wrestling, B-movies and tabletop role-playing games. And yet, their newest record, Jenny From Thebes, marks the first time that Darnielle and company have mined their own history for content, further building the legend of Jenny and her associates, making myth of the everyday. All of which results in their best record in years.
Looking at a band like the Mountain Goats in totality is, at this point, a near Herculean task. This is a group that has released five LPs since 2020 alone. To capture their music, and Darnielle’s songwriting, in one grand, overarching statement would be inherently reductive. The band that set out to release Jenny From Thebes is not representative of the band that released All Hail West Texas, this record’s supposed prequel. A song like “Clean Slate” may directly reference something like “Color In Your Cheeks” in its lyrics, but trades tape hiss and furious solo strumming for an ornate string section, a jaunty piano line and a horn section. It’s a testament to everyone involved that they’ve carried such an impressive flock of fans from their street-corner troubadour phase to show tune elegance. I am not delusional, I am sure there are a fair amount of Darnielle originalists out there who can’t stand all the studio mastery and glamor. I’m just not one of them. All Hail West Texas is charming, nostalgic, and immediate. It is an incredibly important record to me and so many others, but Jenny From Thebes is the work of musicians on another level entirely.
That said, the last decade or so of Mountain Goats’ records have been a bit of a mixed bag. Darnielle’s been as prolific as ever, but at times could benefit from a bit of self-editing. His writing has always felt almost compulsive in its immediacy but can become a bit devalued when the next album gets announced as the current one arrives. Perhaps it was the focus on his own songwriting past, but Jenny From Thebes feels like a welcomed exception. “I saw the future in an oil slick, it told me what I need to know, leave a little stain behind you, everywhere you go,” sings Darnielle on “Cleaning Crew” a song that braids his own biography with the myriad of lost souls he’s conjured. Alternatively, “Murder at the 18th St. Garage” represents the ideal blend of the macabre and the quotidian that has been Darnielle’s grand project, placing fantasy imagery within an auto garage and giving us the breakneck, shout-along chorus we need from him every so often.
Appropriately, this is a record obsessed with memory. Even from Jenny’s earliest mentions in Darnielle’s oeuvre she felt more like a concept than a real person, an ideal conjured by the lonely. Here the remove is even greater. “Fresh Tattoo” and “Clean Slate” both center memory, the latter urging one to “forget the ones you can” with the former questioning whether that’s ever truly possible. Oracles and prophecy are constants as well, giving loose change, beaten motorcycles, and forehead wrinkles the stature of grand mythology, stories passed down in an epic battle with obscurity. For Darnielle, this is largely in keeping with his grand mission of heightening even the most mundane of dramas to epic proportions. You could, and many will, look through Jenny From Thebes with a fine-toothed comb in search of every easter egg, every hidden reference and that might rewarding but what’s more impressive is how well these songs stand up on their own, even as Jenny’s memory fades beyond the distant horizon.
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