With the October 27 release of Jenny From Thebes, The Mountain Goats tread new and old ground simultaneously. The indie folk band’s 22nd album is a full-fledged rock opera telling a single story — one diehard fans will recognize from decades back. The new record builds upon narratives, settings and characters established in 2002’s concept album All Hail West Texas. It follows Jenny, who runs a discreet safe house near the border between Texas and Mexico. When her small town threatens her and those she shelters with eviction, she kills the person responsible, hides the body in a water tower, and leaves town to live out the rest of her days as a nomadic fugitive.
Previously, Jenny had always appeared through a dreamlike haze. In All Hail West Texas, an unnamed narrator recalls — or maybe imagines — escaping into the sunset on the back of her Kawasaki motorbike. On 2001’s Jam Eater Blues and 2012’s Transcendental Youth, Jenny is a specter, calling from unpredictable, distant locations. In a November 2017 interview with the podcast “I Only Listen to the Mountain Goats,” lyricist John Darnielle describes her as “a function of memory … defined by an absence.” Jenny existed to be remembered and romanticized, but not to have a perspective of her own — until Jenny From Thebes.
Here, she takes center stage as protagonist, and often narrator, of an epic saga. The mere act of examining her interior world subverts the character’s original purpose, tugging at a new question — if Jenny has always been defined by our distance from her, who is she up close?
Jenny From Thebes paints her as a headstrong, practical agent who will do anything to protect her community’s most vulnerable. Yet the storytelling retains the hazy, shifting quality that followed her in The Mountain Goats’ back catalog. It’s nonlinear, twisting time and switching perspectives frequently. In the somber acoustic track “From the Nebraska Plant” and the climactic, brooding “Jenny III,” the unnamed second narrator recalls the plot from many years in the future. The jazzy closing track, “Great Pirates,” is likely entirely speculative, a fantasy of the two running away together. Memory still permeates the story, without sacrificing Jenny’s interiority.
The album takes notes, both instrumentally and narratively, from musical theater. It’s easy to imagine the first track, “Clean Slate,” opening a Broadway production, with its cheerful piano riffs that gradually grow into a sweeping orchestral final chorus. Jenny, exhausted but doggedly committed, describes people passing through her house in various states of destitution, setting the scene with a fittingly theatrical tone which remains strong throughout the rest of the album. Other highlights include second single “Fresh Tattoo,” with its earworm chorus and crisp lyrics, and “Murder at the 18th St. Garage,” which heightens a pivotal act of violence with headbanging pop-punk instrumentation.
Jenny From Thebes gracefully walks a nuanced line between innovation and regression. At times, the album’s explicit and frequent callbacks to All Hail West Texas can come off as forced. But ultimately, the record’s new perspective makes up for any staleness that naturally comes with rehashing old material. By transforming not only the character, but Darnielle’s fundamental approach to writing her, Jenny From Thebes justifies its own premise, making Jenny’s story worth revisiting.