Damien Jurado “The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania”

Maraqopa Records, 2021

Enigmatic low-fi folk provides emotional clarity and literal obscurity.

Damien Jurado has been making records for twenty-five years. This is the first release on his own label, Maraqopa Records, and his seventeenth studio album overall. Maybe it is the freedom to self-produce or the loss of his producer, the late Richard Swift that has lead to such conscious sparsity. Whatever the reason, it is a deliberate construct “I wanted to leave space for the listener,” says Jurado. The press release informs that the new album contains ten intense stories of people determined not to be broken by dire circumstances but the stories are abstract and non-linear. The lyrics have been helpfully provided, but this does not add clarity, nor flesh to the tales. In truth, they make each story less, not more familiar, leaving significant room for personal projection.

Damien references influences including Lou Reed’s ‘The Bells’ and deliberately looks to capture “a certain dryness” in this work. Throughout Damien is accompanied by multi-instrumentalist Josh Gordon who provides the sole additional accompaniment. The opening track ‘Helena’ is close and intimate, composed solely of a strummed guitar and accompanying walking bass line. The vocal style calls to mind his contemporary Jason Molina “The world is a liar, the stars are a must”. ‘Tom’ follows in similar vein but with a basic drum and reverb as the basis of the rhythm and a style more redolent of a certain Lou Reed.

Song For Langston Birch’ is another fine example of both the familiar and that which is obscured. The sound is comfortable, gentle low-fi folk which thinly masks an ambiguous tale of wanting with an undetermined outcome. ‘Johnny Caravella’ is an undoubted highlight. Progressively building from gentle folk, inexorably leading into feedback and abstract sounds as the pace and vocals continue to lift. It recalls the finer moments of the Velvet Underground. The spirit of Moe Tucker is evident in the drumming and the repetition of vocals act as reinforcement “Just stick around till the light pushes into the darkness”.

In all the whole album comes in at only around thirty minutes which passes quickly. There is something enticing about a body of work where everything is simple but nothing is straightforward. Without doubt there is much to admire in the confidence of a songwriter who produces a song that contains only six lines and is more akin to a haiku than the obvious ‘American Standards’. This may not be an album that you can instantly appreciate, but it may well prove to be an album that prompts you to seek out the other sixteen studio albums by Damien Jurado in order to shine a little more light into the gloom.

Jurado creates his own Twilight Zone, “a middle ground between light and shadow”, a dimension of imagination, of half-remembered dreams and people reaching out to cross into that liminal space between heartbreak and wholeness. Jurado knows the territory well and knows the secret words to whisper at the right time. “All is not lost / Even if you’re without a direction.” Damien promises – or admits – Press your eye to the speaker, tune your ear to the horizon. From the oblique cultural reference in the title and in each and every song there is a pervading sense that there is more going on that the listener can grasp. An audience into each activity has been granted, but no explanation of the script has been given to enable insight into the events that are witnessed.

7/10
7/10

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