All hail the Mountain Goats

John Darnielle breaks his own rules on lush new LP 'Jenny from Thebes'

Credit: Jackie Lee Young

It’s been more than 20 years since singer-songwriter John Darnielle dropped the lo-fi masterpiece All Hail West Texas into the world. Two decades and more than a dozen albums later, devotees to the cult classic still feel a charge from the copy splashed in wide kerning across the record’s minimalist cover: Fourteen songs about seven people, two houses, a motorcycle, and a locked treatment facility for adolescent boys.

Released under his longtime moniker The Mountain Goats, the revered collection of home-recorded acoustic gems has developed a lauded patina around its intimate and irresistible fusion of tender folk-punk and human-sized storytelling. From the plight of two young misunderstood metalheads (“The Best Ever Death Metal Band in Denton”) to a former teen football player busted for selling acid after an on-field injury (“Fall of the Star High School Running Back,”) the yarns spun around the album’s 42-minute runtime are as warm and welcoming as the wheel grind of the Panasonic RX-FT500 boombox churning in the background. 

Darnielle dips back into that universe on The Mountain Goats’ latest Jenny from Thebes, having long since earned the plural stage name with a complete band behind him. The 12-track offering finds the celebrated storyteller resurrecting one of the original album’s central characters in full fidelity with a big and brassy reboot of the world that first gave her life.

“I don’t generally bring stuff back once I’ve already put it to bed,” the 56-year-old musician and novelist says from his home in Durham, North Carolina. “So when I got this idea, it felt transgressive to me — breaking my own rule. And by that time, you sort of get the thrill of doing something you’re not supposed to do.”

The thrill began, as so many do, with a few simple chords. The words soon followed, as the title character from the Mountain Goats classic “Jenny” appeared in the frame: Jenny was a warrior, Jenny was a thief / Jenny hit the corner clinic begging for relief. 

“I always begin from a place without any intention. When I open up a notebook or sit down at the piano or pick up a guitar, I almost never say, ‘Well, here’s what I’m planning on doing,’” Darnielle says. “I just start to play. And when I get an idea, I follow it.” 

Darnielle followed this particular idea back to the desolate West Texas environs of his beloved 2002 classic. When listeners first met Jenny, she was running a safehouse in her southwestern ranch-style home — now at the point of exhaustion after years of protecting others, she goes on the run in her aging yellow-and-black Kawasaki motorcycle.  

“You can’t be the person everyone relies on to take care of them and keep them safe for too long,” Darnielle says. “It eventually causes so much stress that it threatens to break you.” 

The upcoming LP ‘Jenny from Thebes’ by The Mountain Goats is out Oct. 27 via Merge Records.

‘What else is in there?’

But there was still a big question hanging over Darnielle’s head. Bringing characters back to life was one thing — Jenny had already popped up in songs like “Straight Six” from Jam Eater Blues and the Transcendental Youth side-two standout “Night Light,” after all. But as it became clear that Darnielle would return to the world of All Hail West Texas for a new full-length project, he had to decide whether to also return to the lo-fi hiss of the original LP’s signature boom-box recording.

“I wanted to go to the other end of the spectrum,” says Darnielle, whose records have since mostly been smartly produced studio affairs. “I find it crass to try and draw from the exact same well twice. I want to see what else is in there.”

To find out, he traveled to music icon Leon Russell’s legendary Church Studio in Tulsa, Oklahoma. In the hallowed halls of the late innovator who fused swamp-pop and country-fried southern rock to dazzling effect, Darnielle enlisted the help of past collaborator Alicia Bognanno of Nashville indie-rock outfit Bully on guitar, backing vocals from Kathy Valentine of The Go-Gos, plus horn and string arrangements by multi-instrumentalist Matt Douglas and a bevy of other players who lend the album its richest studio texture in Mountain Goats history. 

“It’s a big ensemble — that’s one of the things I like about the sound of this record,” Darnielle says. Sharing more DNA with the Broadway show tunes of Godspell than the stripped-down, guy-in-a-room quality of its spiritual predecessor, the group effort behind Jenny from Thebes finds the time-tested songwriter pushing the parameters of his long-running project to lush new heights. And in the same spirit of transgression that brought him back to the West Texas desert in the first place, Darnielle says the final product is the result of getting outside the “bubble” of his own creative rulebook in more ways than one. 

“I don’t remember shooting anything down [in the studio], because I wanted a big maximalist vision,” he says. “And I think to do that, you have to let everybody bring as much as they can … which is sort of not like me, [but] we get good results when I just do my job and get out of other people’s way.” 

ON THE BILL: The Mountain Goats with Mikaela Davis. 7:30 p.m. Friday, Oct. 13, Fox Theatre, 1135 13th St., Boulder. Sold out. 


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