Chances are, youve probably seen the name Damien Jurado thrown around a few times. If you do recognize the name, youve either checked out the mans music or let his songs slip through the cracks along with loads of others. Despite a very solid, now nine-album solo career that started in the mid ’90s, following stints in local punk bands with the likes of David Bazan (Pedro the Lion), for one reason or another, the Seattle songwriter has never reached the level of notoriety expected of an artist of his caliber. Perhaps people still associate him with Christian music (he was in a few Christian rock bands in the late ’80s), or maybe the right publications just dont praise him enough. Either way, its an injustice. He remains a hidden gem, no matter how many hauntingly beautiful folk records he releases.
Well, throw Saint Bartlett in with the other eight. With his newest, Jurado not only perpetuates his hot streak, but experiments with chilling production and slow churning ballads to re-envision his sound and craft one of his strongest, most cohesive efforts to date. As far as I can tell, 1999s Rehearsals for Departure and 2008s Caught in the Trees are the closest he’s come to this before. Jurado is a regular to the compelling stories department. He seems preoccupied with troubled relationships and, usually, geographically focused ones. On Saint Bartlett, Jurado constructs a haunted house of dark memories and hometown pining, all with his gripping country swoon. With production from Richard Swift, the record continually blossoms with echoes, rich rhythms, and spooky textures behind Jurados smooth, but whiskey-soaked pipes. Think Sea Change without the dramatic stylistic shift.
From the get-go, the album presents larger scale production than the usual Jurado record, exploding with the lush strings and distant handclaps of Cloudy Shoes. The songs protagonist idolizes an anonymous acquaintance, while revealing his own naÃ¯ve desires. He converses with himself, almost on a literal level, in an artful call and response, his own voice echoing his words behind a vintage radio filter. It sounds more Wayne Coyne than Damien Jurado, but sets the tone for the entire records aesthetic. This is clearly a more grandiose affair than most of his previous records. Instead of consuming every song or getting in the way, the heavy, but much welcomed production distances Jurado, mystifying his poetry.
Arkansas follows, as the first of a few songs directly addressing a city or state (Kansas City being the main other). Ornate percussion, howling ethereal harmonies, and sharp piano keys carry Jurados voice through an apologetic love letter to the state of Arkansas. Similar to how the female character on Rehearsals Ohio longs for her home, this individual rethinks his decision to leave his place of origin. I dont recall the last time we spoke/ said its my fault/ I still dont believe you/ oh, Arkansas, he sings with striking sincerity. Jurado is still invested in the same issues hes been mulling over since the beginning, but with such beautiful songs, it certainly isnt getting old anytime soon.
The sets third track, however, might be the most stirring on the record. Rachel & Cali is a slow-creeping, bass-heavy chiller, consisting of two cryptic conversations between a man and two different women. After begging to be left in a car and indirectly inviting one to spend the night in his parents home, our speaker attests, A friend is only a lover youre not committed to. Its one of those songs youll want to listen to over and over again just to try to decode. Jurado will do that to you.
From then on out, the record tends to fluctuate between variants of the styles presented early on. Jurado creates a spacious, dark abyss for his delicate guitar, soulful voice, and thought-provoking poetry. The crunchy Wallingford is a Zuma-era Neil Young-esque rocker. The stinging melodies of Pear and Kansas City float atop radio static, and the echoed bangs of dropped silverware. Harborviews initial sparseness is soon drowned out by squealing electric guitar and martial snares. The sound is spectacular, and all the well-placed accents bring these gorgeous songs into full realization. For a man this deep into his career, you couldnt ask for much more.
With Saint Bartlett, Damien Jurado further proves that he is one of alternative folks best-kept secrets. But, after a 15-year solo career, its about time for somebody to let the cat out of the bag.