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REVIEW: ‘Jenny from Thebes’ is a comfortable, beautiful experience

Photo courtesy of Merge Records

Indie folk-rock group the Mountain Goats have released their 22nd studio album, “Jenny from Thebes.” It is in the style of a rock opera named after the band’s character, Jenny. Jenny has previously made several appearances on past albums from the Mountain Goats.

There were three singles on this album: “Clean Slate,” “Fresh Tattoo” and “Murder at the 18th St. Garage.” I don’t understand why there aren’t more. Most of this album could’ve been singles. 

“Clean Slate” opens the album with beautiful piano keys. The drums, bass and guitar transition into it beautifully. Vocalist John Darnielle’s singing on here is mixed in more fluidly than most of the album. The instruments become his contemporaries here. He also raises his voice a few octaves in the outro verses, and it is encapsulating. “Clean Slate” deserves to be a single and shows what Darnielle brings to the band when he sings perfectly. The song is about leaving home and starting new with a clean slate. 

“Ground Level” has a very classic rock feel in the guitar tone and has saxophone chords to accompany it. This song is about Jenny feeling stuck where she is, but she will eventually break out because she has luck on her side. The chorus is especially beautiful; Darnielle sings, “We sleep light in the shadow of the cloverleaf.” The way he sings it is amazing, and the imagery of the line itself is so well written. 

Another song that is single-worthy is the track “Only One Way.” Subtle bass notes, disco keyboard notes and a tight eighths snare start the song. These elements begin the best song on the whole album. The delivery of the whole song is very soothing, especially when the chorus comes in. Here, the guitar flourishes, and what sounds like a tambourine is tapped discreetly. Darnielle has sung more in unison on this track, as well, but here, he drops even lower. This song talks about how the only way to go about life is to make some misguided decisions. 

“Fresh Tattoo” is a single, although I don’t think it deserves to be. It’s a four-and-a-half-minute song, but the first three-and-a-half minutes are a steady drum beat with keyboard notes crafted around it. The last leg of the song explodes into a mesmerizing rock/jazz session. Here, someone is found and taken in by a new friend. The friend is curious about the tattoo on Jenny’s arm, but she doesn’t ever remember getting it.

The final single, “Murder at the 18th St. Garage,” is the most hard rock song on the album. It starts with a drum roll, then goes into a song with a brandished guitar and a fast and consistent drum tempo. This song takes a strange turn in the album. It is about a murder committed, and the killer is covering their tracks, thinking that, after this ordeal, they are “older but wiser,” as the song puts it. This is such an unexpected and eye-catching song for the album that it is perfect for a single. Also, it’s not only any single, but it’s the final single for the album. This song is like the final trailer before the big movie came out in theaters. It has to really draw its audience in and force them to wait for the big release to come out. “Murder at the 18th St. Garage” does this perfectly on all fronts. 

Another track that should’ve been a single is “Same as Cash.” This one is similar to “Clean Slate” with its ballad structure and its distinguished use of melodic piano. However, this song is simply better. It has a tighter and more consistent atmosphere; Darnielle’s voice is more lively and invested here. The lyrics elaborate on having mental breakdowns on any normal day. The causes of these breakdowns are something which would usually be a minor nuisance rather than a big issue. For instance, the song talks about mentally breaking down over advancing rain or someone yelling at their Jeep as they try to fix it. This is a unique take on the social commentary that people are always so strong when dealing with big problems like finances or relationship troubles; something so insignificant can push them over the edge, like a small weight being added to one side of a balance beam. 

“Jenny III” is the title track on this album. Here, Jenny had lived a poor and mundane life living in a little Texas town. The people in the town didn’t want her home or her there, so she left on a motorcycle. Many years later, she returns to visit the friend she left behind. This song undergoes the orchestra rock opera the album presents the best. It is slow, takes its time sweetly and keeps a smile on my face until the final piano note is played. 

“Jenny from Thebes” is a perfect example of an album that doesn’t take itself too seriously while giving a very solid presentation. The rock opera instrumentation is well-planned and executed with a sharp tenor. John Darnielle’s vocals are well delivered. Even though I liked the album, it can be a miss for others. It’s not an album all rock lovers will simultaneously like. In my case, though, it’s 40 minutes of bliss. 

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About the Contributor
Tyler Guthrie, Columnist
Tyler Guthrie is a second-year columnist with The Sunflower. He is a creative writing major with a Spanish minor from El Dorado, Kansas. Guthrie uses he/him pronouns.

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