by Matthew Stewart
“…I’ll go wherever you go and live wherever you live. Your people will be my people and your God will be my God.”
- Ruth 1:16
Sometimes it’s best to cut to the chase right off, get things out of the way, say what you mean, right from the get-go. Shoot straight. In my opinion, the most underrated singer/songwriter/musician currently living and producing music is Damien Jurado. And his new album Maraqopa is probably the most important album of his career and will likely be the most important album of the year for me. These things, they are facts. I cannot be swayed from this.
Late winter, early spring 2003. Buffalo, New York. The Mohawk Place.
We hate this bar because they charge too much for drinks and the drinks are always watered down and the beer comes in tiny plastic cups that are most definitely not worth six dollars. This isn’t New York City. This is Buffalo. A beer should be massive and half this price. It’s a good thing the cover was only seven.
But seven bucks is worth it because Damien Jurado is playing tonight and his new album Where Shall You Take Me? is fucking fantastic. It’s a bit of a mess, like all Jurado albums, but that only adds to its charm. You’re eased into the messy landscape as you open the CD case, before you ever even take it out. The cover is a picture of a tiny house, a shanty, in sepia tones. The house is on the horizon, emptiness lies behind it, a dirt road in front of it. The picture is aged. It could be ancient. When you look at the disc itself you see that familiar CD silver but bright blood drips down its front. This is American Gothic in the form of an album.
A violent flash fiction song kicks things off. So spare, so short. A man is killing someone. A man is killing someone in a hotel room after taking her picture. He makes her take off her dress. She screams. He takes pictures. It’s a “habit [he] can’t kick.” Is Jurado the killer? Not literally, of course, I can’t imagine he’d hurt anything except maybe himself. Maybe that’s what the song is about. We all have our habits that we can’t kick. We all need o hurt ourselves sometimes.
At The Mohawk we are milling around and being assholes. This is what we do at shows. There’s a reading before Jurado goes on. Someone is reading from a book and I don’t know who they were and I don’t care. Andy tells me I need to pay attention to the reading because he knows I want to be a writer. I can’t. I hate readings. I want to drink. And I want to stand against the wall behind the bar stools and talk to Phil. And Mikey. And I want to watch Damien Jurado.
Jurado is at the bar by himself. I think he’s drinking whiskey, straight. It seems he’s putting away a lot of it. One after the other. His head is down. His head is shaved and he is heavy, a much bigger man than we thought he’d be. No one is talking to him. There are at least two seats open on each side of him. No one goes up to him and says that he’s brilliant, says that he’s changed their lives, says that his songs are something that help them get by. I should say those things but I don’t. Who wants to say those things? Who wants to hear them being said? I couldn’t do it. None of us could. Out of the corner of our collective eyes we watch him drink his drinks and go out for an occasional cigarette. He looks so tired, so sad, like the end is near and maybe it is. We are sick voyeurs watching our hero do what he probably does every night. We don’t want to be him but we want to be him.
And he takes the stage and he is brilliant. Of course. Tracks off Where Shall You Take Me?. Tracks off Rehearsals for Departure. The only-living-at-that-time-on-bootlegs-because-the-EP-has-been-out-of-print-for-a-while-now “Happy Birthday John.” My eyes get misty as I sing along. My throat catches. This song is so simple, but so sad. Though he may not look his best, he is playing at his best. He can’t help it.
If you like nothing else about Maraqopa’s opening track, “Nothing is the News,” you’ve got to like that lead guitar. He’s channeling Crazy Horse. Dan Hindman is channeling Danny-fucking-Whitten. This is the music Neil Young would be making if he were just starting out now. This is a cut off some modern version of Everybody Knows This Is Nowhere. And I didn’t expect this from Jurado for some reason. Jurado has always been a perfect songwriter, but I didn’t expect him to jam. I knew he could rock, but I didn’t realize he could groove, not like this.
The song gets even better when it ends, not because you’re sick of it by then, because that’s not even possible. The whole album could be that song and it would still be OK. But because that song ends you get to listen to the next song, “Life Away From the Garden,” and Jesus Christ it is creepy and glorious.
Jurado had said that an inspiration for Maraqopa was Christian psychedelic rock from the 60s and 70s and on paper this sounds like a terrible idea. How is Christian psychedelic rock from the 60s and 70s different from other psychedelic rock from the 60s and 70s? It just is. Perhaps it’s because these people were so earnest. Psalm 98:4-6, “Shout to the Lord, all the earth; break out in praise and sing for joy! Sing your praise to the Lord with the harp, with the harp and melodious song, with trumpets and the sound of the ram’s horn. Make a joyful symphony before the Lord, the King!” And that’s just what these people were doing. The Jesus People are the closest thing we’ve gotten in the past century to people actually following the Bible, actually being Christians in the ways in which Christ intended. As an atheist, I still respect their ability to believe wholeheartedly. If you don’t believe me that this music is good, the folks at Aquarium Drunkard put out a mix tape of some of the stuff a few years ago. This is a piece of music history that we are ignoring because it is also intertwined with the deviant bullshit that modern Christianity has become. These people were not Pat Robertson. These people were Jerry Garcia’s and Steve Marriott’s and Jimi Hendrix’s who loved Jesus. They were good folks who believed so much that they needed to sing about it.
Still, there is a creepiness to the whole idea of Christianity. Especially when kids are involved. And I don’t know if Jurado was trying to point this out in “Life Away From the Garden” or not, but the eerie children’s chorus repeating lines like “When in doubt / I’d put my hand in your side” is gloriously off-putting. This is nearly word for word from the Bible. The disciple Thomas had trouble believing that the risen Jesus was actually alive, or Jesus for that matter, so Jesus offered to have Thomas stick his hand in the giant spear wound out of which just days earlier, blood and water flowed.
My girlfriend has never been a Christian but her parents tried to give her some religion at a very young age. She, as a toddler, realized what took me years to figure out—Christianity is totally weird. She asked her parents to stop taking her to Sunday School because all of the stories were about dead people and therefore scary. And they are stories about dead people! The Bible is a collection of stories about dead people. There is so much murder and violence in the Bible. If I ever have kids, I don’t want them to be thinking about a guy sticking his hand in someone’s giant spear wound. I want them to run around in the grass and chase butterflies and play with Legos and climb trees. I don’t want them to worry about their soul. I grew up very religious and had horrific nightmares about no making the cut and burning in Hell. Because in my fundamentalist Christian church, Hell was a reality as soon as you could understand sentences. I almost feel like I never got to be a kid.
So when the kids start singing about Doubting Thomas or the toil that followed Adam and Eve’s ejection from the Garden of Eden, it makes your spine tingle and your hair stand up on end. The innocence of children combined with the violence of God’s word, a frightening juxtaposition.
My iTunes is telling me that I have 130 Damien Jurado songs equaling 7.2 hours and 598.8 megabytes of music. If I had to order these Jurado releases, EPs and LPs, in some sort of personal favorites list, based almost completely on sentimentality, it would be as follows*:
1. Where Shall You Take Me?
2. Rehearsals for Departure
3. Caught in the Trees
4. Saint Bartlett
5. Gathered in Song
6. Ghost of David
7. Waters Ave S
8. On My Way to Absence
9. And Now That I’m In Your Shadow
10. Just In Time For Something
*I can’t include Maraqopa or the Maraqopa Sessions EPs in my rankings yet, they’re just too new. I also lost my copy of I Break Chairs before I even started using iTunes and have yet to buy it again. It would probably be #6.
For as long as Pitchfork has been reviewing Damien Jurado albums, they have been making little underhanded comments about his records in these reviews. I will never understand this. Justin Vernon could tape himself vomiting in a toilet, slap on some auto-tune in the mix, and Pitchfork would call it “Best New Music.” Pitchfork’s disavowal of Damien Jurado makes them suspect. The number grades are usually decent, it’s just that whenever they have something nice to say, they ruin it by either a) writing terribly or b) making some sort of dig. Sometimes both.
“His cracking, warbling, off-key tenor was so painfully prevalent that it made the songs a bit difficult to listen to. A serious shame, too, ’cause in every other respect, Waters Ave. S.– to quote that old legend of insanity, Wesley Willis– whooped on a llama’s ass.” – Rehearsals for Departure
“With Ghost of David, Jurado more than makes up for his last effort: the silly, if not pointless, Postcards and Audio Letters.” – Ghost of David
“For example, what heterosexual male has not been forced to answer this question: ‘Honey, how do you like my new haircut?’ For your information, the ‘correct’ answer is always ‘I love it. You look like Bo Derek.’ The large-nutted boyfriend, however, would reject appeasement and instead offer the following rejoinder: ‘You mean the one that makes you look like Billie Jean King? What the fuck were you thinking?’
If Damien Jurado’s music were my girlfriend, I just might grow nuts and drop that bomb.” – I Break Chairs
“The quasi-cinematic monotone crescendo that begins midway through never pans out: the story isn’t real enough to be genuinely disturbing, and a half-assed attempt at trying to humanize the protagonist ‘I am not an evil man/ I just have a habit I can’t kick’ derails anything he was building up to.” – Where Shall You Take Me?
“So, it’s the second-best album of his career…” – Maraqopa
Obviously, who cares what Pitchfork thinks? I don’t. But I still don’t get the hate. And if it’s not hate, the indifference, the big “whatever” toward Jurado. It can’t all be about haters having to hate, because you’ll never find a bigger group of haters on a website.
I can tell you right now, whatever noisy hipster hip-hop or dubstep dance disaster they’re hyping at the moment won’t be around in 17 years. And that’s how long Jurado has been releasing music.* Damien Jurado’s the guy who does his job, Pitchfork prefers the other guys.
I guess that some people must listen to what Pitchfork has to say, and pay attention to them. If you look at recent indie rock Grammy winners Arcade Fire and Bon Iver, two acts perpetually hyped by Pitchfork, you can’t help but wonder if the people at the Grammy’s are just taking the easy way out and seeing who the most written about acts on Pitchfork are and then giving them the prize. I wish Pitchfork would use these powers for good and not for mediocre.
* Fifteen years is how long I’ve been paying attention to Jurado’s career. Fifteen years! Have you been doing anything for fifteen years? That would have made me seventeen and I was in my senior year of high school. There is no musician, no habit, no artist, no writer that I have consistently taken part in for as long as I have liked Damien Jurado. What’s even crazier, his first album is still worth listening to. “Yuma, AZ” will kill me every time.
So it’s about time for Jurado to fight back against his critics, even a little bit. And in “Working Titles” he does this. “In the end you were a fool like the journalist / who turns what you sing into business.” Yes, music writers, detractors, haters—you are fools.
The Swift Family Singers come in then, and it’s transcendent. Their “oooooooo-ooooooo” is gorgeous and I want this to be happening, to be performed right in front of me, all the time. The song may also be a “fuck you” to ignorant fans. At about two-thirds of the way through the song, it goes silent, “What’s it like for you in Washington / I’ve only seen photos of Washington / I’ll never know.” Jurado is a Seattleite. I can just imagine some trendy groupie or college newspaper reporter asking these questions. As if Washington were some unheard of, exotic place. Truth be told, I’ve never been to Washington. I guess I’ll never know.
Do we need to know? Do we need to have seen or been to a place to appreciate a brilliant songwriter? Did I need to be in Washington to get Nirvana? Did I need to be in Oregon to have Elliott Smith influence me like he has? Did I need to be in the West Village in the early 60s to get Dylan’s folk music? Did I need to be in Woodstock to worship Music From Big Pink? Did I need to live in San Francisco for American Beauty to affect me so deeply? Does Reasonable Doubt mean more to me after living in Brooklyn? No. You don’t need to be there. These places, they live in these songs. But these songs live wherever you take them. And these songs take you wherever you let them.
June 2010. Gowanus, Brooklyn, New York. The Littlefield.
We’re here far too early. I can never tell when to get to shows in New York. You’d think late, but these places pack the acts in. Like that time we missed all but the last song in the encore from Jens Lekman. That was bullshit. It started a little too punctually. Chances are there’s something else going on right after Damien’s show. As it turns out there’s a dance party or some other such vapidity happening after. But we’re still early.
Andy’s not here yet, but he will be. Then he gets there and leaves in search of dinner. Ryan and I are fine without him.
I’m smoking cigarettes outside and there’s Damien out there smoking too and talking with a small group of people and he looks great. He’s trimmed down a lot in the past few years. Grew his hair back. He’s chatting with a blonde outside the venue. Once again, I watch. Because I’m a weirdo.
He just seems happier now. Maybe it’s because the reviews are better. Maybe it’s because he’s married again. I remember reading something about him getting it together for his son, making this album and touring for his son. This seems laudable. Like when Cormac McCarthy wrote The Road for his boy.
Andy gets back as the opening act is finishing up. Kay Kay and His Weathered Underground were enjoyable. Part of the band plays with Damien. They play all of his new release, Saint Bartlett. They play it from cover to cover.
And Saint Bartlett is a great album. It does suffer from what all Jurado albums suffer, that depressive glut in the third quarter. Not that the depressive quarter is necessarily a bad thing, it’s all dependent though on whether you want to sink into the depression. Sometimes yes, sometimes no. Sometimes you have to skip a few songs, in can be just too much, These subtle, heart-wrenchers, though, are often why you listen to Jurado. They make him who he is, and make him why we love him.
From “Cloudy Shoes” to my personal favorite track off the album, “Rachel and Cali,” to the pleading “Kansas City” everything is fantastic. The band seems to play better with him than with their own band. Or maybe I just like the music more. And even with the depression that kicks you in the gut partway through, the show doesn’t drag. It’s positive. Jurado seems to feel good and we, in turn, also feel good. Everyone is silent. Everyone is watching, paying close attention, swaying slightly. This isn’t a stomping and hollering type of show. This is nearly church, or what church should be. A communion of people gathered together to feel better about life, to bask in glory.
Jurado plays a few old standards at the end, just him and a guitar. “Ohio” and “Sheets.” “Sheets” will tear you up, no matter how hardcore you are. In some ways this is the best way to see him. It’s intimate in a room of five or a room of a few hundred. This is what music is supposed to be. And Jurado, he seems like he’s where he’s supposed to be. And me, right then I was feeling that I was where I was suppose to be, too.
If you’ve never heard Damien Jurado’s voice, you’re missing out. My friend Matt used to do a great imitation. We’d sit around campfires in his mother’s backyard, drinking Jack and Cokes until we were seeing triple while he sang “Happy Birthday John” and “Yuma, AZ.” It wasn’t as good as the real thing, but he almost got it right.
Listen to “Lottery” from On My Way to Absence. The “mmm-hmm-hmm-mmmm” sounds like he’s eating a delicious meal. His songs are delicious meals. Listen to “Tornado” from Rehearsals for Departure at the end where his voice strains, gets higher, louder, comes close to breaking but never does, “It used to be so much better thaannnn thiiiiiis.” Listen to “Window” from Where Shall You Take Me? and his voice is country, rich and smooth, red velvet cupcakes and sweet tea.
And after you’ve listened to those songs, listen to “Museum of Flight” from Maraqopa and continue to be impressed. I don’t think his voice has ever gotten this high, and then so low, and then high again. He does reach the end of his range on the higher notes, this is true. This is what makes the song so impressive. The subtle shake on the word “hang” makes you quiver. The gentle drive of the song, like The Cars playing folk, is mesmerizing. You could listen to this on repeat for hours.
A voice like Jurado’s should probably be insured. This is a voice molded from years on the road, from whiskey and cigarettes, from heartbreak and heartache. His voice is rich, rich like a sweater, rich like mowed hay, rich like lather, rich like leather.
So is Maraqopa the best album that Jurado has put out in his long career? I mentioned that I was thinking it might be to a group of friends recently and Phil countered with, “That’s a tall order.” And it is. It’s hard to pick a best among so much greatness. It may not even be his most daring album, either. That might be Ghost of David and it’s sharp twist from storytelling folk to plodding, disparate indie rock.
I ranked some things up there and I don’t know where those things will stand for me in a few weeks time or if they’re right or anything. I don’t know much. But I do believe that in a perfect world there’d be a lot more admiration for Damien Jurado than there currently is. I’ve been wracking my brain, trying to think of a more consistently excellent songwriter alive, and can’t do it. Maybe Bob Dylan or Neil Young, but they’re of a previous time and generation.
Or are they? Can we put Jurado alongside them? Is that where his real peers lie? Maybe so. Maraqopa seems to be this proof. Being a great folk/country singer/songwriter is nothing to sneeze at. Had Dylan stopped after Another Side he’d still have been a legend. Had Neil Young thrown in the towel after Harvest, those first four records alone would still be on top-ten lists all over the world. And the same goes for Jurado, had he quit even after his second album, Rehearsals for Departure, those first two albums are the kinds of albums people aspire to make, but never will. And all three of them have had there less than perfect moments like Shot of Love and Trans and maybe for Jurado in Just in Time for Something. But even their flawed efforts are gold in comparison to most of the schlock that passes for popular music. And all three of these artists are prolific, Young and Dylan with countless albums under their belts in the past half century and Jurado with eleven in about a decade-and-a-half, not to mention all his EPs.
Perhaps Jurado isn’t more abundantly popular because he is so much like these old time folk rockers. Maybe his problem is that he was born in the wrong time and place, that he’s actually too talented for today. We don’t live in a time where a songwriter who plays guitar really even matters anymore. It might be outmoded now, and that’s just too bad.
A writer that Jurado has found himself compared to a lot in the past is Raymond Carver and it’s an apt comparison. Songs like “Medication” or “Rehearsals for Departure” or “Intoxicated Hands” read, in the essence of their stories, like Carver stories. I’m sure the fellow Pacific-Northwesterner was an influence, at least when it came to storytelling. But the comparison goes deeper than that. In Carver’s essay “On Writing” he says:
I hate tricks. At the first sign of a trick or gimmick in a piece of fiction, a cheap trick or even an elaborate trick, I tend to look for cover. Tricks are ultimately boring, and I get bored easily, which may go along with my not having much of an attention span. But extremely clever chi-chi writing, or just plain tomfoolery writing, puts me to sleep. Writers don’t need tricks or gimmicks or even necessarily need to be the smartest fellows on the block. At the risk of appearing foolish, a writer sometimes needs to be able to just stand and gape at this or that thing—a sunset or an old shoe—in absolute and simple amazement.
This quote has always been a guiding light for me when it comes to reading, writing, movies, music—basically any art form I encounter. I hate, hate being fucked with. I hate being tricked. I hate gimmicks and outright bullshit. I think this is why there is so little popular music I can relate to. It all feels tricky. I feel like I’m being bought and sold by listening to just about anything nowadays. And whether it’s indie rock or pop or hip-hop or whatever, I don’t like feeling uselessly manipulated. I do expect a song to manipulate the way I feel, that’s the expectation of all pieces of art, but I don’t want to be tricked into feeling some way or other.
Damien Jurado is an artist that will never trick you. He’s like Young and Dylan (Ok, maybe Dylan’s a trickster but he’s probably the most convincing trickster of them all in that his music always feels honest, no matter how he acts in his real life or supposedly feels about anything.) in that respect. And there aren’t enough non-tricksters out there. With Maraqopa, Jurado takes us to places we’ve never been with him before. The album is an experience and a journey and while the music is fuller and richer than it’s probably ever been, we’re never being conned. There’s nothing here that will cause you to “look for cover.” There’s no “tomfoolery,” nothing to put you to sleep. As always with Jurado’s music, he’s being the honest singer/songwriter he’s always been, adding some layers, kicking it up a notch, and exploring new territory.
I think that’s why Maraqopa is so important: it’s Jurado’s most prescient album yet, and it’s not a lie. It’s him looking to the past, the present, and the future and making music that ties all three together. The orchestrated folkie is nothing new. From Elliott Smith to Sufjan Stevens, it’s practically an expected career turn now. Jurado orchestrates Maraqopa subtly and smartly, though. His voice doesn’t let you forget he’s a troubadour, no matter how many instruments are making music at the same time. His writing doesn’t weaken or cheapen. He’s the real deal, always has been and always will be. Maraqopa has all the honesty and openness of conventional folk, all the wonderfully written lyrics, all the sweetness of a man who can really sing, all of the lush soundscapes we look for in music today, and absolutely none of the bullshit. Jurado’s earnestness with regards to his craft comes through with every note, with every intonation, on every song he writes. He has the earnestness of the Jesus People when it came to worshiping their God, or the earnestness of Carver as he studied an old shoe or sunset. This passion is palpable, and it’s why you listen to Damien Jurado.
Where shall you take us, Mr. Jurado? With you at the wheel, it doesn’t really matter.