Damien Jurado Damien JuradoSaint Bartlett
Recorded in a week, side by side with Richard Swift, producer, friend, and drummer (yep, he’s the guy who is hiding under the wolf-man mask and who appears in the album’s minimal booklet: barely a photo and three lines of credits), “Saint Bartlett”is another of those painfully sad Damien Jurado albums. The ninth, to be exact, if we leave out the very weird “Postcards and Audio Letters” (or “how to spend an hour listening to good old Damien on the telephone”). In terms of mood and technique, this is the album that Damien should have produced right after “Ghost Of David,” folk with a grunge spirit (let’s not forget that Damien grew up in Seattle, which is painful in and of itself) squeezed onto a four-track and covered with montages of cassettes, voices (female, Rosie Thomas, then), and, yes, noises (the sounds of telephones, vinyl noise, the sound of silences so silent that they end up turning into sound barriers). Let’s say that the seventh cut of “Saint Bartlett,” “Kansas City,” and its bus station atmosphere could be the flip side of the – one more time, let’s chant the mantra, painfully sad—“Parking Lot” (arid murder ballad with which the short, melodramatic career of the aforementioned girl from Michigan, Rosie Thomas, took off). Damien’s voice is the voice of a harsh man who refuses to cry a single tear, but who can beat his chest and intone a torn “come back whenever you want to” (he does, in “Throwing Your Voice”). Let’s not forget that his previous album, “Caught in the Trees,” was post-sentimental hecatomb: after three happy years of marriage and two kids, Damien and his wife had broken up, and his songs talked about jealous husbands and horse women. And what do they talk about now? About lives that are missing pieces, like puzzles that are gathering dust under the bed. Damien isn’t self-pitying, he’s really got it bad.
Because in the world of songwriters, there are prolific, apparently happy people (see Will Oldham and his million albums, or M. Ward and his bygone high school albums), there are guys with tangled hair and an elegant, bittersweet sadness ( Ron Sexsmith ), there are good-looking guys who put out hits that make Natalie Portman cry and then the rest of the world ( Damien Rice), and finally there are guys who have it really bad and write songs to find their way out of the hole (and while they do it, what the hell, maybe help somebody else out of it along with them). Damien Jurado is one of the latter. And there aren’t many like him. Few who spend over a decade faithful to their desolate bits of soul, in three-minute song version (and in this area, “Tonight I Will Retire” is still at the peak of the exaggeratedly close that one can be to the solitude of anyman, comparable in its degree of exposure to Cat Power ’s impressive “I Don’t Blame You.”
Released in 2000, “Ghost Of David” was the third shot of the then very young, very large Damien, and is today perhaps still his masterpiece. It was put out by Sub Pop, the company that discovered him in around 1997 with the irregular but well-done “Waters Ave S.,” which would be followed by his firm candidate for the sad folk throne: “Rehearsals For Departure”. Two years later, in 2002, he put out what so far is his Martian album (if we leave out the aforementioned telephone conversation album): “I Break Chairs,” an hour of noisy, angry folk-noise sound barrier. It was followed by a sort of trilogy of the Lone Ranger in a world too complicated for a guy who believes in God: the arid but epic “Where Shall You Take Me?”; the accessible but equally epic “On My Way To Absence” ( “Lion Tamer” is still one of his hits today), and the lesser “And Now That I’m In Your Shadow.” In 2008, after his divorce, Damien put out his lightest album to date, “Caught in the Trees,” and two years later, dared to return to his origins: a dark ( “Wallingford” is a splendid example), claustrophobic (choruses that seem to have been taken out of a shoebox in “Cloudy Shoes”), and painfully sad ( “Rachel & Cali” is in this sense another “made in Jurado” classic) album. If he had done it just after that album (his first bedroom album, the aforementioned “Ghost of David”), we would be talking about a step further into the depths of his tortured (and recorded to death) existence. But the strange thing is that he’s doing it ten years later. And to keep torturing himself this way after ten years can only mean one thing: Damien is for real, kids. And if he never smiles, it’s because he still hasn’t found a good reason to.