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Damien Jurado - On My Way To Absence

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Artist: Damien Jurado

Album: On My Way To Absence

Label: Secretly Canadian

Review date: Mar. 23, 2005

In “Medication,” the first song on what is still the best of Damien Jurado’s full-length albums (2000’s Ghost of David), the Seattle musician writes from the perspective of a man caught between an affair with the wife of a policeman and an untenable obligation to his delusional, bedridden brother. “It just so happens I have many concerns,” Jurado sings in his spare, lonesome way. It’s a small line, but an elegant one, and that note of understatement you hear in it – the strain to contain things that are not easily endured – is audible throughout his recorded history (five full-lengths and a batch of satellite releases, all of them differing in style and form). As has been widely noted, Jurado’s records operate in a similar vein as Springsteen’s Nebraska and the short stories of Carver. He paints quick, piercing sketches of lives lived in what’s chicly dismissed as flyover country, swooping low enough to capture details that hint at deeper instabilities. He’s as adept at exploring uncluttered, childlike joys (“Matinee” on Where Shall You Take Me?) as the grim business of rape and murder (“Amateur Night” on the same), and he tackles both forthrightly, without the cloak of allusion or myth.

Jurado has many concerns worth exploring on his latest full-length, the lugubriously titled On My Way to Absence, but he seems uncharacteristically out of synch with his own ideas. On its face, the record brims with promise. Nearly every song explores a central theme, namely the way that minor frustrations feed on themselves in a vacuum, reaching a destructive critical mass. The opening track “White Center” (ostensibly named for the West Seattle neighborhood) is a reaction to a single act of serial violence: “Heard they shot another / No one knows the reason / It didn’t make the papers / It’s just another wild night / Here in White Center.” On the one hand, the song’s disgust is palpable and inviting, on the other it veils latent prejudices – its own nihilism is part of the cycle of violence it seeks to condemn, and Jurado captures this ambiguity in just a short string of words. But the instrumental arrangement is as neat and pretty as you please – soft guitar notes accompanied by a shimmering blanket of strings, piano, and trumpet. It lets the air right out of the song.

“Sucker” is another example of this lyrical and instrumental disjunction. Over a hard downbeat and a rippling guitar figure, Jurado sings in a voice that’s oddly indifferent. “With both eyes closed I blew out his windows / A cheap shot I know but someone had to do it / It isn’t like he deserves it / That’s easy for you to say / He’s not our kind” This is snarling, menacing, and bold material, and it’s hard to know what to do with it when it’s delivered so flatly. Jurado is an expressive singer – he throws himself first-person into a host of different bodies, and when it works it’s eerily effective. But he hardly puts an edge on his voice here (maybe once: “Get out our knives / and go for a long drive” is chillingly delivered) and his arrangements with co-writer Eric Fisher hold little in the way of variation, sounding too often like a muddled indie rock medley. It’s a flatness that permeates too much of the record, particularly for a musician who has made bold and effective use of fragmented melodies, incidental sounds, and austere intimacy in the recent past.

That said, I’d be remiss not to mention the highlights, because they are worthy exceptions. “Lottery” has been a live staple at recent shows, and it appears here as the prettiest and most affecting song of the bunch. A Polaroid snapshot of a modest funeral, the tender acoustic guitar and backing vocals of Rosie Thomas combine into a brittle, bittersweet whole. “I Am The Mountain” has the grit and guitar crunch of I Break Chairs, while “Northbound” is the Nick Drake-influenced Jurado of the Rehearsals For Departure days, rendering a quiet sketch of a half-desperate drive alongside Eric Fisher’s distant E-bow, which rings like an AM station straining to catch the antenna. Curiously, these three songs are also the ones that are least consistent with the thematic whole. For whatever reason, Jurado’s ambition seems to have outpaced his execution this time out.

By Nathan Hogan

Other Reviews of Damien Jurado

I Break Chairs

Just In Time For Something

Caught in the Trees

Saint Bartlett


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