Starkness is not new for Damien Jurado. Many of his most memorable recordings and renditions have been solo performances. Despite his high profile as a singer-songwriter with 18 albums to his name, in the past several years, he has at times chosen to perform at house or living room shows and in online streaming performances. As album 19, What’s New, Tomboy?, arrives during a time of increased isolation and distance, the new songs underscore the value of austerity within his discography.
Jurado is upfront about this quality. His previous album, 2019’s In the Shape of a Storm, functioned as a reset to a visionary, lush period of songwriting and recording. What’s New, Tomboy? follows that artistic change of direction as well as a clearing-out of his personal possessions. These circumstances seem to place the singer within the question that was the title of his sixth album, 2003’s Where Shall You Take Me?
The answer to that question is arguably the most direct and decipherable mode of Jurado’s career. Josh Gordon joins Jurado on a variety of instruments, with his bass guitar playing a particularly welcome presence on songs such as “When You Were Few” and single “Birds Tricked into the Trees”. “Ochoa”, written about late Jurado collaborator Richard Swift includes melodic allusions to pop song standards, a little “Don’t Cry Out Loud”, perhaps a little “All By Myself”. These allusions are possibly a less conscious or more subtle form of a songwriting technique Jurado used on 2018’s The Horizon Just Laughed, in which references to singers and entertainers of the past were part of that album’s complex rumination on timelessness.
Jurado’s vocal performance on this album stands out, with several songs delivered at the threshold of a higher range, but not breaking into the falsetto he’s used in his music in recent years. This use of his voice creates tension or anticipation of a breakthrough that never quite arrives, both of which are appropriate feelings in relation to the lyrical content. In other songs, however, his voice is rich and direct, signaling a mode of personal disclosure that has not been so common in his work to date. Album centerpiece “Fool Maria” is one such song, which serves as an essential key to Jurado’s evolution as an artist.
For at least a decade, Jurado has talked about his belief that songs already exist prior to their writers/singers’ capturing them. He has described his waiting for these songs as “an empty cup, always, and waiting to be filled”. He has also denied that his songs are autobiographical. Yet, in the cryptic Maraqopa trilogy (2012-2016) and The Horizon Just Laughed, the line between himself and the characters in his songs blurred amid stories of visions, travels, and the self, unraveling. “Fool Maria” addresses all of these threads of his relationship to songwriting, allowing the deeply spiritual dimension of his music to bloom.
“Time to clean the slate,” Jurado sings on “When You Were Few”. Together with his musical reset and his admission about giving away his possessions, that’s a phrase that defines the album. What’s New, Tomboy? isn’t special because it is sparse. The album is special for how profoundly Jurado acknowledges what might be learned from the emptiness in this life, as well as from being still and waiting to be filled.