REVIEW: Damien Jurado: Where Shall You Take Me?
Damien Jurado: Where Shall You Take Me? [Secretly Canadian, 2003]
Three words? Warm, kind folksong.
It seems so strange to be writing about this album as snow lies thick on the streets of Montreal. From the flat, sepia landscape on the cover to the closing fiddle strains of "Bad Dreams" (courtesy of Okkervil River's Seth Warren), this is a hot, dry record. Coming as a follow-up to last year's mediocre rock'n'roll album, I Break Chairs, Where Shall You Take Me? is deliciously, satisfyingly wonderful: Jurado has returned to The Quiet and The Sad that earned 2000's Ghost of David its acclaim, and he reasserts his place among the finest of America's new, melancholy poets.
The disc opens with "Amateur Night." A few bars of unaccompanied acoustic guitar pave the way for something warm and reassuring. When Jurado begins to sing, his voice is indeed gentle, but what he sings is far from pastoral: "First came the scream / and blood on the floor." As the song continues, an incessant, dull roar grows under the lyrics, like a train trundling in slow motion towards you. Jurado's lyrics are ever-vivid: "In my flashlight, you were a star / a razor-blade that cuts you clean." When the song finally hits its crest and ends, the train - like the drone of Death in your ear - fades away into nothing. It is a bad dream, a nightmare, a sinister sunrise.
This is an odd beginning for an album notable for the Appalachian folk that winds its way into Jurado's urban songwriting. Jurado has been listening to Gillian Welch as much as he has the Red House Painters. The lilting voice of Rosie Thomas appears in several duets, a high, trilling accompaniment to Jurado's soft-eyed tenor. The bluegrass harmonies lend a powerful regret to "Window" and "I Can't Get Over You." The latter is particularly poignant: a brokenhearted elegy, it is like a sunbeam passing over an unlit room, tracing the body of a man, sad-still, in tousled sheets.
One mustn't mistake this as 'music for bedwetters' - ostentatious self-loathing à la Bright Eyes or Owen; Jurado's songwriting tends towards storytelling, not depressed navel-gazing. That said, Jurado avoids long narrative poetry, preferring snapshots of lives - postcard images that tell a thousand words. A boy at the window, watching a girl; "the sour smell of infidelity".
Though the disc stumbles as early as the second track - the plodding "Omaha" is far from whelming - it is smooth sailing from there on. Not everything is hushed and careful: echoes of Arab Strap are heard atop the drum machine beat of "Intoxicated Hands", Jurado sad-angry as he sings, "I loved you seven long years, and now that you've found me out / just get out." One of the disc's brightest lights, in fact, is full-out Mellencamp rock'n'roll. It's strange that I Break Chairs was so uninteresting given how wholly Jurado succeeds on "Texas To Ohio." Ramshackle electric guitars and a quietly explosive drumkit jostle alongside echoing, feedback-licked vocals. As an organ-line bursts from the song's simple structure, it is like a sandy, wide long-shot: the helicopter that scans hitchikers, roadways and friends on foot, zooming toward Ohio.
No review would be complete without a few words on "Matinee." It may be the most effortlessly beautiful song since Nick Drake's "Pink Moon." Here for the first time is the clear, sky-blue sound of Damien Jurado's relatively recent fatherhood. The song is light as popcorn, fresh as the flickering ray that links film projector to screen. Drums patter, guitars strum, and Jurado's boyish charm, his kind adult glee, rings in every word: "Matinee / hey hey / why go late / when the movies are cheaper during the day." This is a song for dancing to with children, for playing while you make daisy-chains.
Where Shall You Take Me? is not a heavy album - it lacks the gravitas of Ghost of David, but makes up for it in its whinsome, beating heart. It is pretty darn wonderful - a breath of sunshine; a warm, soft breeze - the sound of a musician comfortable in his voice, words, shoes and art.