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Lillian’s Lowdown: The Mountain Goats’ “Jenny from Thebes” a perfect followup to “All Hail West Texas”

Oct. 27, The Mountain Goats released “Jenny from Thebes,” a sequel album to their largely popular 2002 record “All Hail West Texas.” “Jenny from Thebes” focuses on the titular Jenny, first introduced in a song by the same name. Here, frontman John Darnielle further explores the settings and characters he once left in “All Hail West Texas,” answering the question proposed on the album’s Bandcamp page: “Who is Jenny, really? What is she running from?”

Twenty years ago, Jenny came into the narrator’s life on a brand new Kawasaki bike, appearing as an almost mythological figure to the singer—a harbinger of freedom. Her arrival marked the end of an era for The Mountain Goats; now, frontman John Darnielle would be presented with the opportunity to record in studios and largely stop recording into his Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox (until his 2020 record “Songs for Pierre Chuvin”), which had been a trademark of his early music.

In “Jenny from Thebes,” that Kawasaki bike has been discarded in a junkyard somewhere, and the listener is allowed a more concentrated look into Jenny’s life. Unlike “All Hail West Texas,” which was a collection of several stories, “Jenny from Thebes” tells a larger narrative, while also referring back to figures from its predecessor album. 

The album begins with “Clean Slate,” which is set in the place Jenny rents and details the people she takes in, calling back to “All Hail West Texas’s” “Color in Your Cheeks,” set in the same house. Darnielle’s voice comes clear over the uplifting tune that the bittersweet subject matter is set against. The raw sound of the original West Texas isn’t here—it’s been transformed into what Darnielle describes as a rock opera, complete with pianos, drums, and horns swelling and receding at just the right moments.

The record then transitions into songs like “Fresh Tattoo,” wherein Jenny promises herself to stop taking people in and prepares for her eventual eviction, and “Cleaning Crew,” where she watches the narrator from the song “Source Decay'' sleep on her couch as he recovers from addiction. The album climaxes with “Murder at the 18th St. Garage,” in which Jenny commits a murder. “Fresh Tattoo” and “Cleaning Crew” sound almost like a calm before a storm compared to “Murder at the 18th St. Garage,” where the energetic instrumentals frame Jenny’s crime, similar to the music of the violent “Bleed Out,” the Mountain Goats’ 2022 record. Here, she’s forced to accept her new status as a killer, although doubt follows her.

In the following songs, Jenny’s life takes a turn. She’s under immense pressure, about to break. The body of her victim floats in a water tower, rotting. Eventually, her bike gets trashed. After the murder, she’s always on the run, and the narrator of the original “Jenny” longs for a past that cannot be revisited. The album closes with “Great Pirates,” a poignant song that emphasizes Jenny’s burden of being a “great pirate” who has to run and always keep running, both from the police and from herself. In “Jenny” the narrator proclaims “the pirate’s life for me” while clinging to Jenny’s back on her then-new bike, headed toward freedom. Now, Jenny is free only in the technical sense, roaming forever and surviving.

On the Bandcamp page, the questions of who Jenny is are answered both in the description’s next sentence and in the song “Jenny III”: “Jenny was a warrior / Jenny was a thief.” But she’s more than that, too. She’s a helper, a killer, the strongest and weakest link. She’s also a testament to Darnielle’s skill.

Darnielle has a special talent for story-building through music, leaving listeners always looking for hints about the neverending narrative he’s built over the past 30 years. There are few other songwriters who can rouse excitement from merely mentioning a name, and fewer still who can establish an emotional connection to a character kept shrouded in relative mystery for two decades. And yet “Jenny from Thebes” achieves that and more.

Lillian Barry is a senior studying journalism at Ohio University. Please note that the views and opinions of the columnists do not reflect those of The Post. Want to share your thoughts? Let Lillian know by tweeting her at @lillianbarry_.

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