The Mountain Goats‘ 22nd album is a rock opera about communal care and fighting for dignity in the face of brutal individualism — and one of the best records in the band’s illustrious discography.

Release date: October 27, 2023 | Merge Records | Bandcamp | Facebook | Instagram | Twitter

It always feels amazing when an artist you like follows up a great record with another one just a year later. For fans of the Mountain Goats, 2023 marks the fifth year in a row that the North Carolina band have blessed us with at least one new album. I know, it sounds unbelievable; I pinch myself with every release announcement. But what’s been truly unbelievable is how the band have been able to maintain the heart, consistency, and attention to detail that have defined their career during this prolific period. All hits, no misses, each record has seen frontman John Darnielle and co. take their music in distinct directions, all the while continuing to develop the style of lush, narrative-driven indie rock they’ve been forging for the last decade. Jenny from Thebes is the hardest-hitting of the bunch, a certified home run that feels like the culmination of the band’s current era of music.

Throughout the Mountain Goats‘ 30-year history, the band’s music style has shifted considerably. What started off basically as frontman John Darnielle’s solo project—his vocals and guitar were usually the only elements on their lo-fi, boombox-recorded releases—eventually shifted into a folky rock music three-piece, then finally to the current, full-band iteration playing indie rock with a penchant for exquisite brass and woodwind ornamentation (I’ll admit to being a sucker for a nice trumpet part on a rock song). But no matter the style, production budget or level of orchestration, the band’s music has been defined and propelled by Darnielle’s astounding prowess as a lyrical storyteller.  Focusing on all kinds of subject matter, he explores themes of belonging and alienation, personal fulfillment, camaraderie and community, aging, and mortality through a myriad of characters who are in desperate need of compassion, yet often times only receive it from Darnielle himself, and the listener, of course. This is because a great part of his mastery lies in how impossible he makes it not to care about whoever it is he shines the tender glow of his limelight on, be it a wrestler, an actor playing Michael Myers, or a possum.

Jenny from Thebes is a follow-up of sorts to the band’s classic lo-fi album All Hail West Texas (2002), though, to Darnielle’s credit, Jenny stands on its own two legs, its enjoyment and appreciation only enhanced by any prior knowledge, not dependent on it. On All Hail‘s fourth track, Jenny and her Kawasaki motorcycle appear as the central figures in another character’s escape fantasy, before riding off without him. Although this wasn’t Jenny’s first appearance on a Mountain Goats track (that was on “Straight Six”, from their 2001 single “Jam Eater Blues”), nor her last (that was on “Night Light”, from 2012’s Transcendental Youth), it was her most substantial, as the other two songs place her at the opposite end of a phone call. Still, throughout most of her history, Jenny’s existence as a character had been in absentia; forever fleeting, never quite there, always caught in the act of being gone. But on Jenny, Darnielle allows us to bear glorious witness to her presence as she navigates the circumstances leading up to her transition into transience.

Much like Jenny(the character)’s plight, Jenny(the album)’s music feels palpably urgent, in a sense reminiscent of the visceral music the Mountain Goats made in 2002, but with more polished tools and greater experience. This quality results in an album that moves way from the extended jams, solos, and instrumental sections the band experimented with on their latest releases in favor of direct and driven songs without time for detours. It also grants each song equivalent emotional heft, so that, in a curious case of time dilation, all twelve seem to last the same amount of time (which I was surprised to find out, checking out their runtime after at least a dozen listens, is not the case!). It might seem like their simplest release in a long time, but the details in the compositions, the arrangements, and the musicianship are as exhilarating as they have been recently. Guitars are often supplemented or supplanted by piano and organ as main melody-makers, and the implementation of brass and string sections is gorgeous, their harmonies often the emotional centerpiece of a song’s instrumental section.

Take “Clean Slate”, the opening track and first single. Throughout the song, piano, brass, and strings take turns playing the main melody, imbuing it with their own unique colors. At the end, the three instruments unite in a final call-and-response rendition of that melody that unites celebration and melancholy. Another song where I adore their use of harmony in the arrangements is on “Cleaning Crew”: whereas the horns play an auxiliary role throughout most of the song, adding depth and texture, on the outro they take center stage, as the rich timbers of each instrument come together in a joyous finale. All over the tracklist, these string and horn sections—arranged by the band’s multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas—are pivotal to each song’s ability of reaching its emotional zenith.

Whereas the style and sound of the band’s previous record, Bleed Out, was dictated by its action movie-inspired lyrical theme, the telling of Jenny’s story allows for more variety, and requires more nuance. And the music really excels at transmitting the emotion of its protagonist or the mood of her current situation—be it defiance, apprehension, mourning, or hope—, which is crucial to the album’s narrative ambitions. However great the lyrics are, there will always be gaps in rock operas, in this kind of musical storytelling, that the music must be able to fill. On Jenny, each song is an important chapter in the emotional journey, which can be traced, although not fully grasped, even in the absence of a full understanding of the lyrics. On the flipside, the album also contains some of the greatest individual songs the Mountain Goats have put out. Removed from the overarching narrative of Jenny, songs like “Clean Slate”, “Fresh Tattoo”, “Jenny III”, or “Going to Dallas” still pack an emotional wallop, on par in their urgency and charm with the band’s classic songs from 15 or 20 years ago.

I wasn’t overly excited when the Mountain Goats announced Jenny from Thebes, having no particularly strong attachment to All Hail West Texas, and that apathy definitely marred my initial encounters with the pre-release singles. But I was enraptured during my first listen (I’ve continued to be enraptured so far), and it was clear by the end that, despite any missteps I might perceive, Jenny was something really special. In spite of looking like being entwined with a past release, there is no pandering to nostalgia or self-indulgence; what I feel is achieved by bridging these two eras in the band’s music is a crystalline distillation of their essence even as they continue to evolve stylistically. They are and always have been musical champions of the unchampioned, and Jenny from Thebes is the latest monument to that.

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