Music Review: The Mountain Goats go big on 'Jenny from Thebes,' a sequel to an old favorite

This cover image released by Merge Records shows "Jenny From Thebes" by The Mountain Goats. (Merge Records via AP)

On “Jenny from Thebes,” The Mountain Goats offer a sequel to one of their most beloved albums, 2002's “All Hail West Texas." This one has a lot more bells and whistles.

The first album was an intimate, sparse affair with leader John Darnielle doing everything himself: singing, playing acoustic guitar and keyboard, recording it all on a Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox. This time around, he brought in Grammy-winning producer/engineer Trina Shoemaker and a full band: Darnielle, Peter Hughes, Matt Douglas and Jon Wurster. As a result, “Jenny from Thebes” is louder and more energetic than the solitary first record.

“Jenny from Thebes” sends the Goats into some new genre territory, with new wave, folk rock, and pure pop woven throughout. There's the addition of horns and piano. Bully leader Alicia Bognanno brings her lush guitar sounds while Kathy Valentine of The Go-Go’s does backing vocals.

This collection wouldn't be out of place on Broadway, shaped by a myriad of influences from The Cars to Sufjan Stevens to Ben Folds Five. Depending on your taste, the range of influences here make this one of the band's most approachable albums yet.

The common threads between many of the Mountain Goats records are lead singer Darnielle's distinctive, somewhat grating voice — imagine a 1960s coffeehouse folk singer — and his passion for narrative lyricism, which brings up characters like the titular Jenny, who has dropped in and out of his songs over the years.

On “All Hail West Texas,” Jenny makes an appearance midway through the record on a song simply titled “Jenny,” in which she arrives to a home she shares with the narrator, who is completely smitten with her.

On “Jenny from Thebes,” Jenny returns, this time seen from a distance by a conflicted narrator, who describes her as “a warrior, a thief," someone who “hit the corner clinic begging for relief.” (Is it the same narrator from “Jenny”? That's for listeners to decide.)

Other characters on this album seem one step ahead of trouble or in the thick of it, a continuation of his idiosyncratic style: the insomniac traveler on the string-heavy “Clean Slate,” the person “passed out on the sofa, cigarette burns and coffee stains, loose change in your pocket, Naltrexone in your veins" on “Cleaning Crew," and a body floating in the water on “Water Tower."

Many of the songs on this record are not defined by Darnielle's voice, as has been the case with many previous records. The Goats go a step further here, letting the melodic piano and buzzing guitar carry the catchy chorus on “One Way Out." Madcap drumming and driving guitar do the same on "Murder at the 18th St. Garage.”

Darnielle said his goal on this record, the band's 22nd, was do the exact opposite of what he had done on “All Hail West Texas." He has done that by ceding some of the spotlight to the band. It sounds great, but only Darnielle knows if this is the new sound of the Goats — or just a scintillating detour.


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