Last year I was asked to write a so-called ‘Through the Archives’ feature on an album from at least several years ago that meant a lot to me. I found it really difficult to choose and ended up ignoring the brief and instead writing about a selection of my favourite songs by the late, great Jason Molina. Well it’s now my turn to write another ‘Through the Archives’ post, and I have again been scratching my head as to what album to review retrospectively. To cut short a long and boring story of deliberation, I have again been “creative” with the brief, taking a similar tack to last time and handpicking another treasury of songs from an artist whose work means an awful lot to me. I decided to choose Seattle singer-songwriter/living-legend Damien Jurado, who, like Molina, has released a lot of his work, particularly in the last decade, on Secretly Canadian. So I guess the first thing I should say is a big thank you to Secretly Canadian for putting out all this great music!
Before I get to the songs, you may need a little background info. Damien Jurado’s solo career stretches back to the mid 90’s, his début album, Waters Ave. S, being released on local big-indie label Sub Pop in January 1997. The album was all angsty indie rock and so it wasn’t until the release of the folk-tinged follow-up, Rehearsals For Departure, in 1999 that people began to see that this wasn’t just another momentary indie rocker but a man with considerable inspiration and talent. Since then Jurado has released eleven albums plus several EPs and singles, none of which sound exactly alike. He has this uncanny ability to hop between genres (both between and within albums), giving him a chameleonic image that is hard to isolate and define. To me it is this fluctuating image which makes Jurado such an important figure. He isn’t a rock star content to look cool in plaid and make people nod their heads, nor is he a simple folk troubadour who sings heartsick romantic songs about lost loves. Jurado writes songs that reflect what it is like to be alive in the years either side of the millennium, songs for a landscape both cruel and kind, everyday and surreal, songs that can be sad and exciting and slightly scary and sometimes weird as hell. And, despite the sonic reconstructions that he introduces on each album, the man himself is always present at the centre of each song, telling us stories, the beating heart which highlights humanity in all of its guises.
Jurado’s writing/narrative style is immediately distinctive. In many ways he is more like a fiction writer than a traditional songwriter, as he doesn’t write explicitly personal songs about his own life but instead channels his feelings through the stories of others, often people who don’t even exist (this fact is highlighted in a a great Q&A with a high school class for the excellent Room 125 series). This means that the “I” in his songs rarely refers to Jurado himself, but is simply a first-person literary device. His songs seem built from fleeting images, snatches of dreams and imaginings, stories and scenes which are not the products of his own mind at all but seem to land there and take root. His genius is the ability to first flesh out these images into complex, emotionally involved stories, and then to pare everything down into his spare, lyrical form without losing any of the nuance. The result is something tangible, a sense of nostalgia for things that never happened, at least not to you, at least not in this life.
The stand-out track from Rehearsals For Departure, ‘Ohio’ quickly became a fans favourite, to the point where Jurado would not play it live because of the constant badgering. Like many of the best Jurado songs, ‘Ohio’ manages to paint a story far larger than the track itself, detailing the situation of a girl who has decided to return home after being kidnapped by her father. The tale is told from the perspective of a nameless character who sees the girl trying to get a taxi back to her mother in Ohio. The song occurs in one flat moment, beyond the trauma but before the reunion, suspended in instant in which anything can still happen.
“Out from my window ‘How far is Ohio?’
She laughed and pointed out east
She said, ‘I grew up there with my dear mother
And I haven’t seen her since thirteen.
You see, I was taken while she lay sleeping
By my father’s hired man
We moved to city so far from my family
I haven’t been back there since.
It’s been a long time, a real long time.'”
Not content with this simple angle, Jurado weaves the narrator’s loneliness into the song too. Having grown attached to the girl, the character rues her passing but doesn’t act on his feelings, in some ways becoming the reassuringly good-natured antithesis of the father.
“Out from my window please hear me Ohio
Your daughter wants to come home
She longs to be with you to hug you to kiss you
To never leave her alone
And I’ve gotten know her to live with to love her
It’s hard to see her leave
She belongs to her mother and the state of Ohio
I wish she belonged to me
See you sometime, see you sometime”
“It just so happens I have many concerns”, so begins ‘Medication’ (from Ghost of David), a track on which Jurado truly flexes his storytelling muscles detailing the narrator’s twin concerns of his suicidal, paranoia-ridden brother and the wife of a local policeman with whom he is having an affair. The song is crushingly sad and dark, but also full of love – quite how Jurado conjures this much empathy in just four and a half minutes is just amazing. The writing describing the deterioration of the brother’s mental health is incredible:
“Brother called this morning in a terrible panic,
spies in the closet, bugs in the attic,
he screams bloody murder saying, we’re all gonna die.
And death is upon me I know cos he showed me
pictures of graveyards and us underneath.
I’m losing my hearing from my brother’s screaming
they’re coming to get me and someone call the police”
The brother’s suicide attempt leads to a trip to an institution for electro-convulsive therapy, accompanied by our luckless narrator. It is in the twilit waiting room that the story comes to its sad and desperate end:
“The TV is blaring with some preacher saying
that god is among us
and he hears our cries.
And Lord do me a favour,
its wrong but I ask you,
take my brothers life.
Cos he’s sick of the suffering
the pills he’s inhaling
the cross he is bearing
that is his troubled mind”
“I am not an evil man.
I just have a habit I can’t quit”
From 2003’s Where Shall You Take Me?, ‘Amateur Night’ sees Jurado at arguably his most intense. The track is close and claustrophobic like the violent internal seethings of a man unhinged. It’s dark and unsettling and strangely magnetic, a murder ballad for the age of grainy VHS tapes.
Written in close proximity to a divorce, it is difficult not to look into the songs from 2008’s Caught in the Trees as personal artefacts from Jurado’s life. The album deals with the main characters relationship with a woman and her partner, but is more complex than a rom-com style rejection/pining scenario. The figure is hooked on suffering, and his refusal to let go of the woman reads like a dangerous form of self-harm, one designed to feed his addiction. It’s clear the character is tied to his demons, but whether it is he or they who hold the chains is up for debate. ‘Go First’ says this most clearly:
“Are you all right?
You’re making me nervous with how much you leave me here.
Is it a sign?
I don’t feel like ever getting well”
The album is also dotted with ‘meta’ flourishes, Jurado acknowledging the frustrations of being a musician and grappling with the nagging sensation that all of his songs are the same. ‘Predictive Living’ is full of such nods: “Chords just re-arrange” he sings. “Just another jealous husband to kill”.
Make it Back Islands
As if to address such concerns, the period saw Jurado begin another recording project which allowed him to explore themes and structures that might not be suitable for Caught in the Trees. The songs became Hoquiam, a band consisting of Damien Jurado and his brother Drake, which allowed a degree of creative freedom which had been lost with his conventional albums. As he told Secretly Canadian: “[Forming Hoquiam] with my brother seemed like the perfect idea on so many levels. For one, Drake was not a musician. I wanted there to be an innocence and excitement like I had not experienced since I first started music. No expectations. No set of rules. Just a chance to sing songs with my brother and chance to make art. That was it”.
The album is beautiful and strange, the songs heavily influenced by the coast of Washington state where Hoquiam (the birthplace of Drake) sits. The characters here are tied to the ocean and surrounding landscape, kicking through tangles of driftwood and pebbled glass and the castings of marine worms, their faces corroded by salt and blowing sand. If this sounds macabre then it’s with good reason – these songs, apparently inspired by Drake’s love of horror movies, are dark and twisted, the ghost stories of people not yet dead.
“I’ve become so good at choosing sides
so Joanne make sure that I die in time.
And I want to be buried in my bedsheets
and push my body in the Puget Sound.
‘Cos if you don’t ever make it make it back…
And I want Mt. Rainier to be my headstone
compass throwing stones mark where I tried
and the coastline called me then it spit me out
well the shoes must fit well too late for that now
‘Cos if you don’t ever make it back…”
Johnny Go Riding
A brief detour back to Ghost of David, although this one is nowhere near as dark as ‘Medication’. ‘Johnny Go Riding’ is a nostalgic, sepiatone folk song, just vocals and guitar and some shuffle and stomp percussion towards the end. It’s set in the non-immediate aftermath of a failed relationship and told in a wistful, hopeful way. The narrator is urging the titular Johnny to get himself back out into the world, something which Johnny appears reluctant to do:
“Judy, she’s out catching
Rides in passing cars
The memories of me and her
Have burned out like the stars
But me, I’m not disappointed
In knowing that she’s free
Someday down the line
I knew she’d one day up and leave”
But the song ends with a beam of hope, a suggestion that good things are on the way:
“What’s gone is gone, what’s here is now
She standing by a fence
She’s wearing a beautiful party dress
And wanting you to dance”
I’m not sure quite what it is but there’s something irresistibly stark and evocative about the song, you can almost see the prairie grass bending in the breeze, hear the beginnings of the evening chorus, feel the golden shafts of motey sunset at the edge of town.
‘Beacon Hill’ is from Saint Bartlett, but shares a lot in common with songs such as ‘Medication’. It’s full of beautiful writing which deals with mental illness in a grounded, understated way. I could paste any of the four verses (and am fighting the urge to just include them all), such is their quality, but you’ll have to make do with my favourite:
“Was I the ghost or one of your voices
You hear in your head when you’re out killing horses?
Who’s taking my place, who’s taking you home?
I don’t think it’s safe to turn out the nightlight”
Like much of Jurado’s music it seems to describe people living on the edge of things, be it a town or their own sanity, people struggling to keep a grip of each other and themselves.
Ghost of David (The Return)
This song is quite unlike anything else in Jurado’s catalogue, a song that burns long and slow like embers in the fragrant desert night, occasionally cracking and spitting white hot sparks, bursts of ferocious energy. It has the sensation of being the climax of something, as if we’ve been thrown into a story right at its end. The lyrics read like the soliloquy of a man losing his mind in a barren wilderness, snatches of a narrative that don’t quite illuminate the bigger picture. The result of all this is a psychotropic vibe, images of memories projected above buttes and scuttling scorpions, plastered across the heavens like a new form of personal lightning. The trick is to sit back and let the atmosphere take you, his cries becoming those of the coyotes on the distant plain.
One of many stand-out tracks from 2012’s Maraqopa, the second album borne from Jurado’s relationship with Richard Swift (but the first where it really alters his sound), ‘Working Titles’ is typically beguiling and heartfelt. As with all of Swift’s work, this is a song that sways with an almost tropical lilt, part melodic folk song, part slow and sad take on doo wop. It’s a love song, although one not without its idiosyncrasies, which I suppose is wholly fitting of its creator. Again there is a ‘meta’ element here, with Jurado taking aim at songwriters with less noble intentions.
“Many nights you would hide from the audience
When they were not in tune with your progress
In the end you’re a fool like the journalist
Who turns what you see into business
You could use to be more like a hero
A darker shade of damage distortion
Wearing death like a cape or a costume
Cut your ties and leave town when you want to”
Jurado’s latest album, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, continues the partnership with Swift and sees his sound fully embrace the psychedelic rock theme, creating a strange world full of new sights to witness and deities to worship. But, amongst all that, Jurado finds the space for one last sparse folk song. Rather than feeling out of place, ‘Silver Joy’ acts as a break from the psychedelica, a warm, sunny track which conjures an imagined heaven:
“Let me sleep
in the slumber of tomorrow.
There’s nowhere we need to be
that will not be there after.
Keep me with you on the ground
all of my worries behind me now.
And be sure to wake me when
Cover photo by Steve Gullick