Review: Damien Jurado's "Saint Bartlett"

On And Now That I’m In Your Shadow, he sang to a nameless force with an increased detachment, preferring to “hide behind … or stand in [its] eclipse.” On Caught In The Trees, he took the form of a kite, aware that he’d “never float too long,” despite being “lucky enough to be in [its] trees.” In the final lyrical refrain of Saint Bartlett, his newest and most fully realized record to-date, he asks nothing more of this enigma than to “return with a mighty storm.” Characteristically plaintive and restless, Damien Jurado nonetheless embraces his third decade in music with an effuse continuation of relational and spiritual conversations that have stricken and inspired man since the dawn of time.

Returning to someone or someplace runs throughout the bulk of Saint Bartlett thematically, much as doubt, love, murder, adultery and drug abuse — all set on a stage of America’s most forgotten spaces — have been wrestled with before. Jurado also continues to make it impossible to discern what’s fictional or real in his bleak tales, though herein lies Jurado’s legitimacy among folk music’s long-sustained voices: He’s a storyteller as much as a songwriter, developing characters that address each other and God with confused and romantic intensity, often coming up with more questions than answers in their folly. Far from suggesting a life of perpetual disorientation is a virtue to behold, Jurado nevertheless takes honest snapshots of American desperation that embody the quiet hopes and fears which haunt us and always have.

On “Rachel & Cali,” “Kansas City,” “Beacon Hill,” and “With Lightening in Your Hands,” pleas and invitations to return are on display most prominently, backed by melancholy guitars, xylophone, a piano that sounds as worn as our weathered continent, and Jurado’s casual, solemn voice. For the first time in his long career, he’s revealing a penchant for nuanced inflection that’s always been just beneath the surface, using his ability to croon and command the dark themes of his songs in a single breath. In these cuts, we engage the money-driven motives of abandoning parents, the metaphorically daunting glare of a crowd and a close acknowledgment of unspeakable providence through characters that appear to be only sure of their pain. “Was I the ghost, or one of your voices, you hear in your head when you’re out killing horses, who’s taken my place, who’s taking you home, I don’t think it’s safe …” he sings delicately in “Beacon Hill,” before telling his baby that “it’s all right,” perhaps trying to convince himself by speaking the words aloud.

Jurado’s reliably evocative stories contrast nicely with his measured desire to experiment musically, as well. Since he began recording under his given name in the mid-1990’s, Jurado’s released gritty rock records (I Break Chairs), albums full of voice mails and other found sounds (Postcards and Audio Letters) and more consistently, great American folk records. Even with regards to his more iconic, stripped catalog, he’s managed to evolve and mature a sound that could very easily grow tired. On Saint Bartlett, Jurado and producer/friend Richard Swift (an accomplished songwriter in his own right) continue this growth, lending the record’s twelve new stories a crisp swagger and musical intrigue unparalleled by his previous material. Everything sounds better — the guitars, his voice, the pianos, the strings — and nothing is dispensable.

Given that “Arkansas” (which I wrote about a few weeks ago for Magnet) was our first taste of Saint Bartlett, I couldn’t help but assume the song’s Spector-esque beat and use of reverb would presage some nod to the girl groups of the late-1950’s or the best of the Motown years. While it’s clear Jurado and Swift certainly embraced these eras in the record’s production aesthetic, what’s most striking overall is Jurado’s compositional competence. Saint Bartlett is the sound of a man who has taken stock of his strengths and weaknesses — he’s been around long enough to soberly evaluate these things — and chosen simply to keep pushing himself, adding another volume of poignant personal and spiritual narratives to a shelf that risked becoming encumbered with dust. Related to on corporate or deeply personal levels, Saint Bartlett is a record to believe in, a record I hope invites Jurado out of the shadows to introduce his American tales to a crestfallen music culture that increasingly feels starved for meaning.

Saint Bartlett arrives May 25th on Secretly Canadian, though a pre-order from the label will reward you with the “instant gratification” of a high-quality MP3 download.

Learn more about Mr. Jurado at Saint Bartlett and MySpace.

Bonus: “Rachel & Cali” (MP3) from Saint Bartlett via Swill Merchant.

*Due to the flow of this review, I purposefully left out information on the labels that released Jurado’s previous records I referenced above, so to make amends in advance, here you go:

Postcards and Audio Letters (Made in Mexico, 2000)

I Break Chairs (Subpop, 2002)

And Now I’m In Your Shadow (Secretly Canadian, 2006)

Caught In Your Trees (Secretly Canadian, 2008)

Photo Credit: Sarah Murphy Jurado