As a lyricist, Damien Jurado is no Elvis Costello; he has yet to turn a particularly clever or inventive phrase. As a vocalist, his voice falls somewhere between that of a frightened donkey and a forlorn Labrador retriever. Yet, when Jurado’s earnest, awkward voice sings his simple, plainspoken tales of average folks caught in events beyond their ability to control, his work achieves a level of remarkable emotional impact. Few other songwriters can put a lump in the throat as consistently.
Jurado kicked around the Seattle punk scene for several years in a number of bands with his high school buddy, Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan, and ended up on a baseball team with Jeremy Enigk of Sunny Day Real Estate, who liked his demos and passed them along to Sub Pop. The label made Jurado one of the vanguard artists in its late-’90s shift from grunge to folksier music.
Waters Ave. S is a tentative but thoroughly charming debut. Backed by a ramshackle combo, Jurado can sound like J. Mascis fronting an indie-rock Nick Drake or Gordon Lightfoot tribute band. His emotional empathy arrives fully intact — on “Wedding Cake” he takes on the voice of a husband dealing with his wife’s rejection, while “Angel of May” offers a compassionate look at a girl mistreated by one of his friends. Jurado plays the defender of the ridiculed on the uptempo “The Joke Is Over,” and pays affectionate tribute to a gullible parent with “Space Age Mom.” The title track is a simple sketch of a relationship that swells to a heartbreaking chorus — there’s not much to it, but Jurado, whose main artistic weapons are simplicity and honesty, makes every second count.
The Gathered in Song EP strips away the rock elements; the mostly acoustic presentation throws Jurado’s melodic gifts into sharper relief. “Simple Hello” is his first truly great song, a sad look at an ended friendship. “Happy Birthday, John” is anything but happy, as John spends his birthday drinking and trying to figure out why his girl left him. Released around the same time, Gathered in Song and the full-length Rehearsals for Departure play like companion pieces. The Nick Drake tendencies in Jurado’s earlier work come to the fore here, as he moves deeper into moody, acoustic troubadour territory. As usual, he’s able to sketch fully realized stories with just a few lines and evocative melodies. “Ohio” tells the story of an abducted child preparing to return to her mother after many years, while “Tragedy” watches a woman cheat on a good man. Jurado missteps with “Eyes for Windows” as it morphs into spoken word and draws the closest he has ever come to being pretentious. The moment sticks out like a sore thumb amidst the rest of the album’s unassuming humility.
If Rehearsals for Departure was stripped down, Ghost of David is positively skeletal. With assistance from David Bazan (whose imagined death in a dream inspired the title), the album is sometimes harrowing in its intensity. Death, madness and loss haunt all the songs. The opener, “Medication,” sets the mood: the fact that his girlfriend’s jealous cop husband knows what’s up is the least of narrator Jackie’s problems, as his brother spirals deeper into insanity. By the time Jackie prays his brother’s death, it’s hard to imagine the album could get any grimmer. It does, as song after song plots a course through despair. It reaches its nadir (or apex, depending on how you look at it) with “Tonight I Will Retire,” a preparation for suicide. Sparse piano combines with a metronome and muffled percussion to evoke a heartbeat and a ticking clock counting down the last moments of a life. Rosie Thomas’s lovely vocal on “Parking Lot” adds one of the few glimpses of light and hope. Ghost of David is a powerful, haunting album that should be kept far, far away from depressives.
Postcards and Audio Letters is a collection of sound bites and audio collages that Jurado assembled from answering machine tapes and other thrift shop acquisitions. It’s easy to understand his fascination with these artifacts from other peoples’ lives; they tell the same sorts of stories as he relates in his songs. It’s a different approach, but of a piece with the rest of his work.
Jurado assembled a band, Gathered in Song, and rocked out on I Break Chairs, which has a very nifty CD booklet. The band’s unprecedented noisy roar behind him is disorienting on the heels of his minimalist, emotionally direct work, adding a layer between Jurado and the listener. It’s a very good album — the songs are first rate, but it’s less inviting than his prior releases. In a way, I Break Chairs is reminiscent of John Hiatt’s Tony Visconti-produced All of a Sudden, with its incongruous Bowie-esque atmosphere — the material is excellent, but one wonders if it was presented to its fullest advantage.
Where Shall You Take Me? brings Jurado back to familiar, minimalist territory, although stark piano begins to figure almost as much as acoustic guitar. The title turns out to be descriptive — aside from a trip to Yuma, AZ on Waters Ave. S, most of Jurado’s work has been informed by Seattle. Here, he broadens his geographic perspective, heading out to “Omaha” and “Abilene.” Indulging his rock side, he goes “Texas to Ohio.” But “Amateur Night” turns inward, a creepy trip into the head of a serial killer.
Jurado returned to full band arrangements for On My Way to Absence but reached a better balance than on I Break Chairs. The mostly acoustic backing complements Jurado’s songs rather than overpowering them like the blaring rock of Gathered in Song. A prototypical Damien Jurado album, this is a quietly excellent, straightforward collection of songs performed without much muss or fuss but with great empathy and feeling. Thankfully, it never veers over the line into the gloomtown Jurado too often visits. A re-recording of “Simple Hello” doesn’t quite measure up to the original, but potentially introduced an excellent song to a wider audience.
And Now That I’m in Your Shadow is Jurado’s most dour record since Ghost of David, which — in a generally morose body of work — is really saying something. With accompaniment by a percussion-free chamber pop combo (which, in a rare flash of humor, is also named Damien Jurado), the songs range in color from off-white to gray. Individually, the tracks are every bit as good as anything else he’s ever written; as a whole, however, the album is too much of the same thing, as one glum tale follows another. By the time the protagonist of “Shannon Rhodes” meets her sad end at the hands of her lover, Jurado needs an intervention that takes away his copy of Nebraska and replaces it with a Junior Senior album. Jurado is a massively talented fellow and undeniably great songwriter, but when he’s way down in the dumps, he ain’t exactly fun. At this point in his career, he’s making his pal David Bazan look like a party animal, and that can’t be a good thing.