The Mountain Goats don’t need me to tell you that they have a new album, Jenny From Thebes, out October 27.
The need is in me. I have to tell somebody Jenny is back.
In her prior appearances in the Mountain Goats catalogue, Jenny is a vanishing figure. Even in the song named for her, when the singer is riding on the back of her motorcycle, face pressed into her hair, the pair of them become “the one thing in the galaxy God didn’t have His eyes on.” Lead-footed Jenny is a negative space, an afterimage, known mostly by the pain of missing her. You look to where you last saw her: that’s the one place she’s certain not to be.
But she’s here now. All the songs (so far) from new album are sung from her perspective. We’re riding with her this time.
“Murder at the 18th Street Garage” gives us a portrait of Jenny as she sees herself. Her explanation for her presence here: “I’m in the repair bay, casting spells.” The verses follow her activities in the first person, present tense, with a close-up view of both what Jenny is doing (“tending the fires”) and its private significance for her (“gathering power.”)
The instrumentation places us in the garage with Jenny. Electric guitar scratches on the concrete, and cuts in melodically like the whine of a circular saw. Peter Hughes’s bass keeps a “still-there, still-there” heartbeat. Jon Wurster on drums gives voice to the place where instinct becomes indistinguishable from fate.
Following the conventions of ancient Greek tragedy, the murder happens offstage, sometime between verses one and two. Jenny asks, “May I present the man of the hour?” The chorus sings that he’s “placing his faith in the strength of the safety visor.” The next we see of him is a bloodstain. Jenny hides the evidence not only from the cops, but from us.
We don’t see anything but the cleanup.
After the murder, Jenny speaks in general terms about dealing with difficult situations (“Cover your eyes when the splash comes / It’s the only thing you can do.”) She’s talking herself through what she has to do, advising and comforting herself when she’s the only one who can (there being, she hopes, no other witnesses.) Addressing this advice to “you” places listeners inside the song. In the verses, we’re with Jenny. In the chorus, unsettlingly, “you” replaces “his” in the line “placing your faith in the strength of the safety visor.” We’ve donned the dead man’s shield – and we have reason to think his faith in it was misguided.
Jenny has been a keeper of memory for the characters in Mountain Goats songs, their last link to a time they wouldn’t want to return to, but from which they’re never quite free. On the new album, she gives voice to her own thoughts on memory, and on how to get free.