Damien Jurado can be stunning. In his career, he has played around with styles, between albums and on them. He can be a rocker, whisper a sad confessional, throw some weird loops and dissonant noise onto a track and still provide melody, and he can stretch his somewhat limited voice to great lengths. On 2000’s The Ghost of David, he warbles the opening track, “Medication”, so sadly you can feel your heart break with the narrator of the song as he watches a loved one lose his mind. The song has power coupled with immediacy, an elusive combination, but Damien Jurado has a few of those rare songs under his belt. (Five years after its release, “Medication” may be one of my favorite songs ever.) It has made the whole of his catalog slightly frustrating, as there have always been tracks that sound like afterthoughts. The enthusiasm with which one might recommend songs on a CD by Mr. Jurado must be tempered by the fact that there have always been tracks that could be skipped without losing a wink of sleep. You take the great with the mediocre, and the great will make it all worth it.
Damien Jurado’s latest release, On My Way to Absence, is his most consistent album to date. Harrowing stories sung with his compellingly thin, sometimes slightly quavering voice, Mr. Jurado claims these are 12 songs about jealousy. But they read broader and deeper than that. As with any thoughtful piece of art, the specific grows outward and covers a wider spectrum. These songs are about love, death, and the day-to-day poignant mannerisms of close relationships. Bruce Springsteen Nebraska references frequently abound when discussing any low-key, story-based record done by a guy with an acoustic guitar, but Damien Jurado comes the closest to the style of that classic recording. He evokes the spirit of all those great Springsteen characters: bad-ass but desperate, as willing to go down in a hail of bullets as they are to profess their love to one woman as they’re falling. On On My Way‘s opener, “White Center”, Jurado sings “Turn off your headlights / Here comes a cop car / Music for the bad boys / Music for the good boys”. So, there’s your situation, and then there’s the ambiguousness. Jurado stands a few paces back and reports dutifully, without judgment, the music providing a pretty and tough framework for the story.
One of the strongest songs on the record is “Big Decision”. The lyrics are simply “Made a big decision / Think I left you out / Got a lot of problems / Think I’ll work it out”. Using his voice as the main weapon, Jurado makes what sounds like filler the first time around into a moving chant, the slightly weird sounds in the back growing with each play and adding the dimensions that turn this into a great song. “I Am the Mountain” could be added onto Son Volt’s Trace without anyone being the wiser. “Northbound” is a gem in a minute and a half, the music sparse (guitar, ebow) and the lyrics bleak. The closer, “A Jealous Heart is a Heavy Heart” weighs down on the listener in a good way, sounding like a commanding speech dressed up as a story (although it’s hard for this listener to get past the affect of pronouncing “drowning” with a second ‘d’ in it).
The weakness of On My Way to Absence comes with the lack of dynamics. Jurado leaves the recording so restrained as to vault highs and lows. Because of this, it is a less compelling listen. There is nothing that touches the aforementioned “Medication” or a smattering of other songs from previous records. Too often, On My Way sounds like a transitional record. This is not always bad, as the CD on the whole is often lovely in its starkness (even the full-out rock songs have space to climb into). But knowing what Jurado has in him, one can only hope he takes the consistency he has finally discovered and unites it with some of the fire he has displayed in the past. It is perhaps a finicky complaint with so many mediocre recordings released each year, but when something like this is so good throughout, one can’t help but wish for the artist to stand on that edge that would make it great.