Jun 02, 2021
By Austin Saalman
On his fourth record in the past three years, Damien Jurado returns to do exactly what is expected of him—create aching portraits of desperate people who are struggling against a hopeless world that will not stop for them.
This approach dates back to at least 1995, when, with encouragement from fellow Seattleite and former Sunny Day Real Estate frontman Jeremy Enigk, Jurado saw his Motorbike EP released on Sub Pop. His early efforts on the label would eventually culminate in the creation of 1997’s Waters Ave S., his debut LP, which garnered him a bit of critical attention, introducing his hushed voice and bare-bones approach to the decade’s indie music scene.
Waters Ave S. would be followed by several more Sub Pop releases, including 1999’s mystifying Rehearsals for Departure and 2000’s haunted masterpiece The Ghost of David. Each record’s lyrics featured stream of consciousness observations and recollections of men and women living in the shadows of love, loss, and potential danger, either at the hands of themselves or of others, all entirely unique to Jurado in their plainspoken, somewhat disengaged deliveries.
Twenty-five years later, Jurado returns with his desolate The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania, an eclectic 10-track LP continuing his career-long parade of cold rooms and long nights, opening with the deceptively light “Helena,” which begins with “Hello from the room where I’m selling my clothes.”
“Helena” serves as a strong opening track, something to be expected of a Damien Jurado record, as the first of his 10 narrators ruminates upon feelings of inadequacy and identity lost. Blurring geography and person, as he often does, against perky strumming and soft maracas, Jurado declares that “The world is a liar/The stars are a must.”
Here, the listener will also find some of the record’s finest displays of verse as only Damien Jurado is able to write it, delivered in such shivering lines as “He was caught up in the laughter of moons/And we were never as big as the world” and “Seeing yourself through the waves of farewell/Once you were them but now cannot tell.”
Songs like the mellowed-out “Tom,” with its cryptic carnival imagery, and the sullen “Hiding Ghosts” sound as though Jurado has become entirely comfortable navigating old houses he built on those early Sub Pop LPs. “Hiding Ghosts,” specifically, could have been plucked straight from Rehearsals for Departure or The Ghost of David. This can quickly become a negative trait for many artists, but a songwriter of Jurado’s ability is able to renovate instead of simply revisiting. Both songs in question are somehow stronger than anything he was doing 20 years ago, and Damien Jurado pushing 50 has forged a new perspective lost on Damien Jurado pushing 30.
The emotional intelligence which can develop within an artist during middle-age creates the necessary layer of maturity to prevent one from becoming a parody, a comic book rendition of oneself. This is why Jurado’s darkness endures, his emotional punch remaining as powerful as ever. The most noteworthy tracks on The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania are among its most devastating, seeing Jurado utilize the powers of age and experience in crafting his characters.
“Johnny Caravella,” a track that feels suspiciously autobiographical, finds Jurado balancing sensations of doubt with a waning desire to persevere—“I know I should leave/But I don’t have the shoes or the courage.”
This track is one of the record’s most impressive, an ethereal slowburner named after the same WKRP in Cincinnati character. By its end, tellingly so, we find Jurado confessing “And yes, I could say that I quit my whole life/Erasing my name at the top of the page/Moving my pen when the audience got too acquainted.” It is a fresh moment of direct honesty from a songwriter who spends as much time speaking in other voices as he does shapeshifting in sound.
The sparse “Minnesota” is bound to become a fan favorite, while the sense of longing on the charming “Song for Langston Birch” rings Dylanesque on occasion, and “Joan”—as brief as it is—is deserving of consideration in its own right. The fragmentary recollections of “Jennifer” form another portrait of devastation from Juradio’s experienced perspective, driven by his wintry picking and closing with the chilly conclusion “I knew myself once/But not anymore.”
Serving as a brief reprieve from all of the darkness—and by far the most unique Jurado song in recent memory—“Dawn Pretend” arrives suddenly in the form of a feverishly warm homage to the same golden pop radio hits most prominent around Jurado’s birth year. Of course, the track remains unique to its sullen composer, serving as an unexpected surprise, easily ranking among the most remarkable of the album’s 10 tracks.
Closing track “Male Customer #1” is perhaps the pinnacle of The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania. It is the quintessential Damien Jurado song, featuring quintessential Damien Jurado lyrics such as “The loneliest place I’ve ever been/Is in your arms.” Haunting is one way to describe it. Here is a fitting conclusion for a man who has spoken for both the haunters and the haunted over the course of his entire career, never seeming to require fresh material…the sorrow somehow seeming to come naturally to him.
The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania may not feel as tight or as full as his classic material, but it remains a skillfully crafted bundle of character sketches and story songs which finds Jurado well—perhaps even comfortable—and showing no intentions of sputtering out any time soon. Like much of his output, this may take a couple of listens to fully settle into, but once you have, it will have been worth it. (www.damienjurado.com)
Author rating: 8/10
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