the Mountain Goats
Photo: Jackie Lee Young / Grandstand Media

The Mountain Goats’ Musical Theatre Storytelling in ‘Jenny From Thebes’

Can the Mountain Goats’ uncompromisingly oblique and challengingly uncommercial Jenny From Thebes become a fully-staged Jennymusical?

Jenny From Thebes
The Mountain Goats
27 October 2023

In a 2017 podcast interview with author and podcaster Joseph Fink, the Mountain Goats‘ John Darnielle called attention to the big “musical theatre lift” in the opening phrase of his song about a woman named Jenny. The idea that a Broadway sensibility can be detected on the all-boombox, solo home-recorded 2002 album All Hail West Texas – by now almost a by-word for a certain kind of indie rock self-sufficiency – is striking enough. Still, it’s also tempting to wonder if this conversation was the origin point of 2023’s Jenny From Thebes, the prolific project’s latest outing, which bills itself not only as a sequel to the earlier record but as a full-on rock opera. 

As so often in Darnielle’s songwriting, however, this would be a partial account, seen from only one of many possible vantage points. An alternative genealogy might trace Jenny From Thebes back to the musical theatre narratives that the Mountain Goats’ bandleader has described as significant parts of his childhood: Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man, Bock and Harnick’s Fiddler on the Roof, Stephen Schwartz’s Godspell, and The Wizard of Oz, to whose star Judy Garland he has repeatedly paid tribute in recent years. On Tumblr, Darnielle commented that jazz/Broadway had a more significant influence on his understanding of composition than Dylanesque folk. 

Some long-term fans seemed scandalized by the recent revelation that Darnielle and Lin-Manuel Miranda, a current mainstay of the Great White Way, have been trading song demos for the past decade. This contingent can now rest assured, at least, that – despite a spirited Andrew Lloyd Webber cover featuring on one of the earliest Mountain Goats’ tapes – this set of several iterations of the Jenny narrative still cleaves closer to one of its stated sources, Brecht and Weill’s “Pirate Jenny”, than Jennyanydots from Lloyd Webber’s Cats.

Dylan himself, in his first volume of Chronicles, identified a production of the experimental Threepenny Opera as a significant early influence on his approach to songwriting. In “Pirate Jenny”, a maid at a run-down hotel contemplates revenge on the “gentlemen” who gawk at and belittle her – “You toss me your tips / And look out to the ships / But I’m counting your heads / As I’m making the beds” – with the aid of the pirates aboard a black freighter in the harbor with whom she will “disappea[r] out to sea” once the violence is over. Left “flat on [his] back”, the young songwriter in that New York audience “took the song apart and unzipped it” to work out the sources of “its resilience and outrageous power”. 

Darnielle’s approach to Jenny From Thebes seems similarly interested in how to write “a song that transcended the information in it, the character and plot”. For what it’s worth, here’s the information we have from the original Jenny: a figure with “no outstanding warrants for my arrest” – implicitly for the first time in a while – climbs onto the back of a mysterious woman’s new Kawasaki motorcycle and roars off “toward the horizon”, relishing the apparent freedom of the pirate’s life. 

The new album as a whole, its accompanying liner notes, and Darnielle’s press comments promoting it all add something to that story. The album opens with what seems like a reasonably conventional “village green” number, apparently setting up a cast of characters: “One from East St. Louis with a scar beneath his eye”, ‘Breakaway republic dude”, and so on. Next, we hear about the space itself from “Ground Level”, in vividly-furnished detail, over a fidgety electric piano: “Tall space heater / Down the main hallway / Blue pilot light / Hissing all night.”

Across the songs that follow, we learn, though not in this order, that Jenny herself is a former addict, once dependent on the resources of a corner clinic. In the early 1980s, she established a kind of informal safehouse off a Texas highway and began “taking in the strays”, and she acquired her motorcycle by trading in a Civic Sedan. Along the way, she had some involvement in the murder of somebody who threatened to rezone her house, which would break up the fragile equilibrium of her community. (We don’t learn much more that we can confidently pin to the other characters that the opener describes at all.)

According to one interview, the murder victim is the local mayor, but the songs themselves never state that explicitly. It’s debatable whether we actually see the central crime in the song named after it, the hard-charging “Murder at the 18th St. Garage”, which, foregrounding Alicia Bognanno’s electric guitar, revisits the punk inflections of 2022’s Bleed Out. “Once you commit to the turn, you’re going to have to follow through,” Darnielle asserts before commanding his addressee to “Cover your eyes when the splash comes”, but is that “splash” the result of a vehicle hitting a pedestrian, or of his body being dumped in a water tower, a scene we only see in full three songs later?

The fact that our narrator has already been sighted “down on the concrete with a bucket and rag” in an earlier verse and that he rings out ‘the funeral bells’ at the start of the lyrics suggests the latter, leaving the mystery of the death itself – and what on earth placing one’s faith in the strength of the safety visor’ has to do with it – entirely open. 

As an “angry 12-year-old“, the Mountain Goats’ singer once played Gollum in a licensed musical adaptation of The Hobbit. His solo number “Riddle Me This” reveled in the tricksy pleasures of withholding information: “Here’s a box without a key / Neither hinge nor hasp you see / There’s no bottom, sides or lid. / Keeps a golden treasure hid.” His undergraduate thesis considered “the imposition of narrative” in Joan Didion’s work and the “high terror” for her characters of recognizing either that “the story that they’re playing out in their lives is not the story they’re actually implicated in”, or that there might be “no story” at all. Elsewhere, in Faulkner he discovered a way of thinking about storytelling whereby “anything that happens to anybody, or anything anybody says, being the present moment of it, has the smallest part. The biggest part, the rest of the iceberg, is everything that happened before.”

In other words, Darnielle’s attitude to narrative remains, for the most part, uncompromisingly oblique and – in terms of the still-tantalising prospect of a fully-staged Jennymusical – challengingly uncommercial. Character and plot here are something to be assembled from parts by ‘enterprising travelers’ with a knowledge of the author’s earlier material rather than doled out sequentially in the manner of most sweeping stage shows. Even Jenny’s eponymous first appearance is complicated by the author’s recent, retrospective suggestion that this escape, too, should be taken as a wistful dream.

“You’re gonna have to watch for the signs / You’re gonna have to learn how to read,” Darnielle sings in oracular fashion – backed up beautifully by Kathy Valentine of the Go-Gos, whose voice complements his as gracefully as original the Mountain Goats’ bassist Rachel Ware’s – on “Only One Way”, effectively directing the listener to work out as much of the rest as they’re able to according to their own lights. (As if to emphasize the point, it’s not until the next song, “Fresh Tattoo”, that an oracle’s prediction is explicitly mentioned by name.)

Knowing the wider canon doesn’t mean we can always arrive at unambiguous answers or stable perspectives, either. “Cleaning Crew”, a song explicitly sung from Jenny’s perspective, calls itself “the next best thing to an actual goodbye” but arrives before the midway point in Jenny From Thebes, with one of its standout lines seeming to bridge and blur the distance between this narrative and Darnielle’s autobiographical work: “If you find yourself in Portland / Ask about me.” It’s hard to imagine that kind of self-referentiality in a Sondheim show: it’s closer in spirit to the moment when a character in long-time fellow traveler Craig Finn‘s solo work arrives at the Twin Cities and says, with a clear nod to Finn’s interconnected musical world, “Man, I know some songs about this place.”

This allusive mode is one Darnielle has turned to more overtly since 2020’s “Exegetic Chains” called back to “This Year“: here, devotees will catch glimpses of “Color In Your Cheeks“, “Distant Stations“, and “Fall of the Star High School Running Back“, but what serves as reprises here reach beyond the current record’s borders, rendering Jenny From Thebes a porous, open text, rather than providing moments of repetition and reinforcement within a self-contained musical narrative.

There are, of course, stage musicals that have played with chronology – Sondheim’s Assassins and Follies, for instance, or Jason Robert Brown’s The Last Five Years – but I can’t think of one with as many apparent alternative endings as this album. In “Murder at the 18th Garage”, we learn that from the murder onwards, Jenny will have to live as a fugitive, “bearing an exile’s mark”. Essentially, everything that happens after plays out as “one of several iterations” of where life might take her and the people saved by her altruistic decision to provide them shelter and a “clean slate”. Jenny, on “Cleaning Crew”, sees “the future in an oil slick” before she vanishes into it. Extending this murkiness, three of the songs on Jenny From Thebes’ second half have subtitles that describe them as ‘the future’ seen from different perspectives. 

The closer, the woozy “Great Pirates” seems nearest to Brecht and Weill’s vision of a well-deserved escape. The breezy, countryfied “Going to Dallas”, meanwhile – the title is another tip of the hat to old heads, though the sound is closer to ‘Waylon Jennings Live!’, the jauntiest cut on the Mountain Goats’ 2019 record In League With Dragons – relishes the possibility of a “clean” exit, even if true freedom doesn’t really look like any “haven anyone would yearn for”.

There are comparable speculations across the whole of Side B, with “Same As Cash” calling attention to its narrator’s limited point-of-view – “I can only see the scene second-hand / I can only try to understand” – to the point where a diffident “That’s what all the people say, anyway” undercuts what might seem to be the stirring central message. That message arrives at the crest of swelling strings: “Everyone deserves a little light in their hair / Everybody needs to love and be loved.”

If a critical part of the appeal of early the Mountain Goats’ sound, leading up to All Hail West Texas, was the listener’s awareness that quite a lot of energy has audibly been compressed into quite a small box, Darnielle and his collaborators’ experiment with a more expansive full-band sound across the past two decades offer different challenges and opportunities. Jenny From Thebes is the tightest and most integrated those fuller arrangements, orchestrated here by multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas, have ever felt. The “rock opera” framing might have implied a cast of thousands. Still, here it’s the music that expands to fill that broader canvas, rather than Darnielle’s typically honed and focused lyrical perspective, which continues to keep a close eye on the shifting dynamics between individuals as they try, despite their damage, to do right by each other. 

One of the true stars in this respect is Peter Hughes, the Mountain Goats’ longest-standing member beside Darnielle, whose catchy and controlled melodic basslines are mixed with due prominence across Jenny From Thebes. Its most distinctive musical element might be Douglas’ horn arrangements, but the subtlety of the Mountain Goats’ elegant, unobtrusive ensemble playing truly lifts “From the Nebraska Plant”. That song, whose lyrics were used to tease the record’s announcement, also seems to anchor its lyrical themes of care, shelter, and memory, its narrator tentatively working out how to move forward from the fear and struggle of past days due to the fateful act of kindness Jenny showed him all that time ago. 

Even as her bike itself is disassembled for parts in some long-forgotten wreckyard, the impression Jenny made some 20 or 40 years ago returns in full force, but with an added, bittersweet complexity: “You handed me your helmet / I clung to you for days / But I am strong now, I am strong now / That was all years back / On your custom Kawasaki / Chrome yellow and black.’ This is ‘the future, seen from a hard place.” But it’s also a life-saving turning point somewhere in the dim past, seen with great compassion: “Let the scavengers proclaim / How much it was worth.”