In a rare moment of piercing clarity on the last New Pornographers album, the eternally disheveled Dan Bejar wailed out “I’m sick of America / and its screaming decay”. The image is one of bizarre double-inscription, an internal contradiction that mirrors the myriad oxymorons that underlie contemporary American experience. How can decay scream? How can screams accompany decay? And how useful a reaction to this state is Bejar’s disgusted rejection of it? Listening to Caught in the Trees, it becomes apparent that Damien Jurado has worked through the problem and decided that the best response to screaming decay is to craft weary narratives of sad defeat and impart them in darkly inviting tones.
Jurado’s idiom is as worn and familiar as a favored old coffee table. Acoustic-indie trappings predominate: guitar picking, strings, brushed drums, wistful harmonizing between Jurado and longtime bandmate Jenna Conrad. The distinctions that make or break any artist in this world have everything to do with either lyrical acumen, vocal skill, or both. Luckily for Jurado, he’s a dead ringer at both, a sure hand with expressions of exquisitely direct aching who likewise possesses a breathy timbre in his phrasing that deepens its technical limitations (which are transcended by the potent sustained notes of “Paper Kite”).
Iron & Wine is an obvious touchstone, and Springsteen comparisons are common enough, too. Indeed, the latter formed the backbone of my PopMatters colleague Dave Heaton’s review of Jurado’s 2006 Secretly Canadian release, And Now That I’m in Your Shadow. But Jurado’s voice reminds me more of the Hold Steady’s Craig Finn (an admitted Springsteen acolyte), albeit without Finn’s undeniable edge and lyrical focus on the party community. Jurado gazes more inwardly and finds no constructive summers or massive nights, only caskets, paper kites, and coats of ice.
Perhaps the most stunning display of his powers is on the mid-album elegy “Last Rights”. Hovering in on Conrad’s haunted cello, Jurado coos indelible phrases in a surprising, affecting melody. “I’m not a bird / catch and release” he begins, wending his way to the fatal mini-refrain, “It’s easy to land / but harder to fall”. He even addresses the essential fallacy of most critical analyses of the sensitively-attuned song narratives of “personal” songwriters: “playing for keeps / the characters are real”. After all, one critic’s fiction is another artist’s painful reality.
This is not to say that Jurado is capable of nothing else beyond downbeat balladry. Lead track and single “Gillian Was a Horse” rides big-chord strumming and reminiscences of high-school dance escorts and kissing booths to a comfortable median between toe-tapper and potboiler, at least until the tragic ending. “Caskets” and “Coats of Ice” crescendo with tension-slicing guitar stabs, and the latter opens sardonically with a darkly comic verse: “You’ll be happy to know / the situation is worse / the endless bottles of pills / that never seem to work”. “Best Dress” is a lyrical exhortation to dance if not remotely a musical one, but the resonant production and straightforward co-ed blues harmonizing makes for a striking final product, redolent of the best moments of Robert Plant and Alison Krauss’ memorable collaboration with T. Bone Burnett last year. The general approach is neither one of obscure experimentation nor rehashed, glad-handing compromise, but lies blissfully in the middle, enfolding indie innovation with recognizable convention.
But how does Seattle’s Jurado and his musical emplacement jive with the aforementioned “screaming decay”? Few records coming out of the indie world are less political than Caught in the Trees, but even not being political is a political act, when you parse it. In his retreat to the personal, is Jurado copping out, abandoning social responsibility for introspective longing? Or is his longing not introverted but extroverted, excavating not inside himself but inside of us for elusive nuggets of glinting emotional gold, prospecting for collective redemption? Or maybe he’s just writing songs of simple, lovely bereavement, the kind of songs that will always be pregnant with significance to besieged psyches in need of as many green pier-lanterns as possible to survive the long nights of this new century. In the midst of “Dimes”, Jurado sings, “somehow my voice / is caught in the trees”. Obstructed though it is, it’s our voice, too. Not the only one, but one of them. And it speaks about decay in a tone much quieter and truer than a scream.
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