For roughly the past decade, Damien Jurado has been a mainstay on the indie circuit, steadily refining his Raymond Carveresque penchant for lyrical detail while coupling his hard luck verses with a coffee house troubadour’s knack for strummy, affecting melodies. At this point in the game, his growing discography is either viewed by onlookers as comfortable and reliable or bland and predictable, depending on his or her tastes. Enter Portland-based musician Richard Swift, who takes the production reigns here, allowing for Jurado to retain his wispy, folkie intimacy while switching things up just enough to keep them from becoming stagnant.
Bringing a big, airy sense of endlessness to the soundscapes heard here ushers in a welcome and revitalizing force to Jurado’s songs, adding new layers of depth and texture to their inherent fragility. While Swift’s ’60s pop-inspired production may seem like an odd match for the Seattle native’s insular, Dust Bowl folk, the approach pushes Jurado to take slight but refreshing chances with his patented brand of sad sack singer-songwriterdom. Swift has a knack for enhancing the warmth burrowed away in his partners, and as with previous production duties — notably on the fantastic Mynabirds record from earlier this year — he brings a true sense of spirited unity to Saint Bartlett. Maybe not so much in the grievous themes surrounding the tunes, but certainly in the glowing, empathetic playing between these two.
While Jurado has always concerned himself with themes of redemption, infidelity, and desperation in his lyrical touch, here he’s branched out, if just enough to avoid sounding tired of himself. A heavy-hearted sense of loss and recovery permeates the whispery words floating throughout the modest grandiosity enshrouding Saint Bartlett. They may occupy a similar sensibility in terms of general tone and atmosphere, but Jurado’s nuanced delivery, married to Swift’s nimble touch, keep these songs from ever sounding like retreads. Seamlessly, he moves from finger-picked, spectral hymns and swelling, heavenly-stringed mantras to hand-clapping, rousing (in his own, quiet way) anthems and swaying, horn-muted odes to emotional rebirth. When Jurado rises to a fever pitch, crying “still trying to fix my mind” on album opener “Cloudy Shoes” — managing to swerve away from over-emoting by grounding his crackling voice with a soft-spun intensity — it sounds like a call-to-arms rather than bleating, self-absorbed wound-licking.
Luckily, Jurado doesn’t waste his new-found bearings, bringing to the table some of the best, most insistent songs of his career. “A friend is only a lover you’re not committed to”, he moans on the twilit, plinking “Rachel & Cali”, a call and response as moving as anything in his catalog. On “Throwing Your Voice” and “Arkansas”, the dry, cavernous backdrop provides an ample bed for some of the man’s most anthemic arrangements, while on “The Falling Snow” he makes nice use of his expanded instrumental palette, finding new and intriguing ways to frame his skeletal melodies. With the risk baiting “Wallingford”, he moves from gently rocking to spirited crooning on the spin of a dime, the crunchy electric guitars amplifying the jolting bedrock of a tune hiding behind the feedback shooting in and out of earshot. Best of all, with the penultimate and closing tracks — “Beacon Hill” and “With Lightning in Your Hands”, respectively — Jurado brings the record to a quietly startling finale, returning to the brittle, forlorn ballads he’s become renown for without retreating to the past. As beautiful a couplet of songs as he’s ever penned, the subtly arranged, complementary pieces that send us off show a broken man who’s somehow stronger for what he’s faced. “I lost my voice / You lost your mind”, Jurado sighs amid Swift’s cooing backing vocals. It’s a striking way to end the record.
Saint Bartlett won’t change the opinion of anyone who’s already had his or her mind made up on Damien Jurado, but for those awaiting a welcome fork in the road, the record more than satisfies. Much of the credit must be given to Richard Swift for focusing and reshaping Jurado, offering him a stimulating rejuvenation on his studied musical path. However, Jurado himself has written arguably the best front-to-back record of his career here, with a strong sense of purpose throughout and a sturdy, memorable set of songs. He may remain loyal to his melancholic, hangdog storytelling, but his newest outing offers a much needed balance with shining new production and some dust-kicking, infectious playing. “Fade out, this is where the credits roll”. Self-help has never sounded so fun.