[19 October 2006]
PopMatters Associate Music Editor
Sean Penn once turned a Bruce Springsteen song into a film (1991’s The Indian Runner, based on “Highway Patrolman”). Not a great film, really, but still it says something about Bruce Springsteen’s storytelling ability that someone would listen to a four-minute song and hear a story big enough for a feature-length film. Characters, settings, backstory and plot can be fleshed out by the listener’s brain from the simplest sketches of lyrics, if they’re written in just the right way. Damien Jurado’s songs have occasionally resembled Springsteen’s, but it’s particularly this storytelling capability that links the two. Jurado’s newest album And Now That I’m in Your Shadow falls squarely in the stark, dark, yet in its own way beautiful tradition of Nebraska. It’s a minimalist album that builds from the ground up: a voice, a guitar, a piano, maybe a violin. Its cover art, all white save for a design which evokes an old book cover, suggests a canvas waiting to be filled in. And it gets filled in, all right . . . with continuous tales of jealousy, betrayal, death, and above all, leaving— people leaving and people getting left behind.
“She walked in with a sadness in her eyes, / I could tell she’d been sleeping with the stars”, Jurado begins on “Denton, TX”, perhaps the most overtly pretty of the album’s many ballads of loss. That opening line sets up character and place in an evocative way, clearing a space for plot: “She has a dad she does not know, / Who sends her letters with no return address.” Jurado has a casual way of narration, and of switching perspective—before the song’s end it’s the woman whose words we’re hearing, as she considers the displaced father, even as we’ve also been hearing the thoughts of the man who met her briefly, and wonders where she’s gone off to.
Disappearance runs through all the songs on And Now That I’m in Your Shadow, and the reasons behind disappearance are always dark ones. In “Shannon Rhodes”, the song with the most historic folk-song structure (and also somehow the one that musically echoes Springsteen the most), a man ponders what happened to a woman he has fond memories of, only to discover she was killed by an abusive lover. “Gas Station” takes the perspective of the one who disappeared, thinking back on the woman he still loves. The particularly shattering “I Am Still Here” has a man whose lover has left dreaming of when she’ll return—tellingly, there’s fear in his dreams (“I must have had a hundred nightmares of you falling asleep at the wheel”), and by the song’s end Jurado again switches perspective and lets us in on the truth that she’s never coming back. And then the song ends abruptly: devotion, rejection, the end.
That’s the bleakness of this world, a bleakness that’s evoked perfectly by the spare musical arrangements. Twice an especially harsh story glides into an elegiac instrumental, violin expressing the loss more fully than even Jurado’s capable words can. At times the album begins to resemble a classic film noir, with its many tales of people gone and relationships gone wrong. But its one told both with words and music, and both contain keen observations on human behavior, and powerfully convey the damage done.
The most brutal, and in that way most hard-hitting, song, “I Had No Intentions”, is also the starkest, starting out nearly a capella. Jurado’s voice is particularly frail and pain-filled, as he paints a vivid portrait of murder, one of course rooted in a lover’s heartbreak. The song slides into the dead man’s perspective at the end, while the piano and violin grow more prominent, offering a full, sad lament.
The title track is one of the album’s moments where even Jurado himself seems about to disappear inside this atmosphere of hurt. A wash of percussion surrounds his voice within this dirge of a song, as he expresses a loss of all feeling, a willingness to surrender into the shadow of the one who has broken his soul. The lead vocals are doubled in an eerie way, as personality splits into nothingness.
That same mood of absolute dissolution in the face of heartbreak exists throughout And Now That I’m in Your Shadow. From third-person observations like “there goes your man, / He’s walking by, / Shaking like a leaf”, this continues through the oblique dream passage that is the album’s final, almost indecipherable song, “Montesano”, which references being trapped in a landslide. Jurado slips off into the darkness at the end, leaving behind a wake of broken hearts and broken bodies.