Don’t mistake kindness for weakness. Or gentleness for meekness. And a reconsideration is not always a step back.
Damien Jurado‘s fifth full-length is a return to the more introspective Nebraska-scapes of 2000’s Ghost of David after a relatively undistinguished intervening foray into rockier territory on 2002’s I Break Chairs. It is a welcome return. Jurado’s frail (no, not weak) voice is better suited to the weaving of weary strands between the haunted spaces than it is to touching up busier, more solid fare.
Admittedly, the loaded stereotype of “indie singer-songwriter” does loom somewhat effortlessly and obviously on first exposure to Jurado’s music, but initial impressions are for the most part deceiving in this case. There’s a core of strength running through this darkly unobtrusive music which lends it a coherence of vision, drawing as it does on place and character as it roams the less fashionable byways of an older America, hitching the frayed strands of the past to the lurching wagon of the present. Taking its cue from the very title, Where Shall You Take Me? has one melancholy eye on that which has gone before while simultaneously asking its unblinking interrogative of an increasingly anxious future.
Almost as if recorded casually amid the poor acoustics of some rural community hall, the opener “Amateur Night” features Jurado’s voice echoing querulously over a slow strummed acoustic guitar. Immediately, the words are darkly ambiguous (“First came the scream / And blood on the floor”), yet had it simply stopped there, the song would have been fairly unremarkable. The growing background distortion, however, adds an increasingly unsettling wall as the song progresses, as if something horrible and inevitable is approaching. The fact that this looming catastrophe (behind such frankly disturbed musings) is unspecified and ultimately unrealized makes it somehow more chilling, like the lingering remnants of a nightmare that won’t dissipate. If this is folk music, it’s far closer to the world of Smog or Cat Power than it is to any Renaissance Fair creative anachronisms.
The remainder of the album doesn’t stray too far from this bittersweet sparsity, in either theme or in tone, with only “Texas to Ohio” upping the tempo and filling in those musical voids more usually left suggested. Vaguely reminiscent of Warren Zevon, it manages this to better effect than many similar more band-oriented attempts on Jurado’s previous album. The sepia-stained tones of the cover are echoed in little bluegrass gems like “Window” which is adorned by Rosie Thomas’s exquisite harmonies—from the seeds of an ardent love song blooms a touching expression of religious faith without taint of preachiness. And for all the dusty sweetness of the subtle accompaniment, disquiet never lies too far below the surface. Jurado’s struggles with faith (in his fellow humans as well as the spiritual kind) sometimes erupt chillingly, as in the blues-laced “Intoxicated Hands” in which the weary narrator moans “I loved you seven long years / And now that you’ve found me out / Just get out” while disheveled electric guitar strums and circling piano spar like late night drunks with no real fight left in them.
Always, simplicity and gentleness obscure a deeper sadness, never more starkly than on the almost childlike “I Can’t Get over You” with its picked acoustic guitar, haunted keening, and lyrics redolent of grieving stasis. Elsewhere, Appalachian folk lullabies and hymns (the atmospheric “Abilene”, the loyal wounded “Tether”) lie alongside plain alt-country ballads (“Omaha”, on which Jurado sounds less like the often-compared Nick Drake and more like the latter’s folkie contemporary John Martyn) and affable whimsy (the shuffling paean to small town life, “Matinee”).
And ultimately, the record closes on as strong a note as it began, bookended as it is by a figurative nightmare and then, literally, by “Bad Dreams”. Nakedly open and vulnerably uncertain, this closing song fades with the lingering impression of a man still (tenaciously, if bleakly) singing as he recedes into a smoky distance, while a mournful violin wraps itself around simple resonant piano notes: “I have bad dreams / Done so many bad things / So come save me from this fire”.
Strangely, on this painfully honest album, an uncertain voice in uncertain times makes for a certain kind of comfort.