JENNY FROM THEBES - CD
Label: MERGE RECORDS
Release Date: October 27, 2023
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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, too.
“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”), the album is a widescreen musical in scope, a melodrama of richly detailed characters and sweeping emotions.
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.
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