On My Way to Absence
Damien Jurado’s problem has always been one of focus. Does he want to be the sensitive folk rocker, the melancholy singer-songwriter, or the ambient experimentalist? In this sixth album, he still hasn’t found an answer. Whereas his previous albums stuck to one possible iteration of Jurado, this album veers between them. Americana ballads, spiritual piano-backed tunes, and mournful folk songs with strings and minimalist drum tracks are thrown together in no discernible order. Sound confusing? Well, it is.
To make matters worse, most of these songs are missing the characters and situations of previous Damien Jurado albums. They seem deliberately stripped of any identifying details — outside history, place, community, nearly outside language. When he sings “the gun in the drawer/ the long distance call,” I’m wondering whose gun and what call? Contrast this with the opening line of ‘Tornado’, from Rehearsals for Departure: “She spends her time with other boys, he spends his time fixing cars.” We immediately have a picture of this couple — the girl is unfaithful, the boy is mechanical. By stripping his music of these emblematic characters, Jurado breaks the crucial connection the singer-songwriter must establish with his audience.
If Jurado were rejecting the singer-songwriter tradition and embracing rock, these oblique lyrics wouldn’t be a problem.
Unfortunately, on most of this unevenly produced album, Jurado’s voice is not propped up by the accompanying music. There are exceptions. In the quiet spiritual ‘Lottery’, joined by the gentle-voiced Rosie Thomas, Jurado sounds almost joyful, complacent with his sadness. In ‘Sucker’ and ‘Icicle’, melancholy electric guitar arpeggios and drums counteract the melody’s stasis and drive the music forward into haunting intimacy.
Listening to this album I had the uneasy feeling I’d stepped into an impromptu performance I wasn’t meant to overhear. On the best tracks, this feeling translated into one of quiet awe. More often, my uneasiness deepened into disaffection. Jurado calls this album a “tribute to jealousy.” When I read that, I wondered, is jealousy an emotion that warrants tribute? In this album, I’m afraid the answer is no.