Album Review: Damien Jurado – Saint Bartlett




Chances are, you’ve probably seen the name Damien Jurado thrown around a few times. If you do recognize the name, you’ve either checked out the man’s music or let his songs slip through the cracks along with loads of others. Despite a very solid, now nine-album solo career that started in the mid ’90s, following stints in local punk bands with the likes of David Bazan (Pedro the Lion), for one reason or another, the Seattle songwriter has never reached the level of notoriety expected of an artist of his caliber. Perhaps people still associate him with Christian music (he was in a few Christian rock bands in the late ’80s), or maybe the right publications just don’t praise him enough. Either way, it’s an injustice. He remains a hidden gem, no matter how many hauntingly beautiful folk records he releases.

Well, throw Saint Bartlett in with the other eight. With his newest, Jurado not only perpetuates his hot streak, but experiments with chilling production and slow churning ballads to re-envision his sound and craft one of his strongest, most cohesive efforts to date. As far as I can tell, 1999’s Rehearsals for Departure and 2008’s Caught in the Trees are the closest he’s come to this before. Jurado is a regular to the compelling stories department. He seems preoccupied with troubled relationships and, usually, geographically focused ones. On Saint Bartlett, Jurado constructs a haunted house of dark memories and hometown pining, all with his gripping country swoon. With production from Richard Swift, the record continually blossoms with echoes, rich rhythms, and spooky textures behind Jurado’s smooth, but whiskey-soaked pipes. Think Sea Change without the dramatic stylistic shift.

From the get-go, the album presents larger scale production than the usual Jurado record, exploding with the lush strings and distant handclaps of “Cloudy Shoes”. The song’s protagonist idolizes an anonymous acquaintance, while revealing his own naïve desires. He converses with himself, almost on a literal level, in an artful call and response, his own voice echoing his words behind a vintage radio filter. It sounds more Wayne Coyne than Damien Jurado, but sets the tone for the entire record’s aesthetic. This is clearly a more grandiose affair than most of his previous records.  Instead of consuming every song or getting in the way, the heavy, but much welcomed production distances Jurado, mystifying his poetry.

“Arkansas” follows, as the first of a few songs directly addressing a city or state (“Kansas City” being the main other). Ornate percussion, howling ethereal harmonies, and sharp piano keys carry Jurado’s voice through an apologetic love letter to the state of Arkansas. Similar to how the female character on Rehearsals’ “Ohio” longs for her home, this individual rethinks his decision to leave his place of origin. “I don’t recall the last time we spoke/ said it’s my fault/ I still don’t believe you/ oh, Arkansas,” he sings with striking sincerity. Jurado is still invested in the same issues he’s been mulling over since the beginning, but with such beautiful songs, it certainly isn’t getting old anytime soon.

The set’s third track, however, might be the most stirring on the record. “Rachel & Cali” is a slow-creeping, bass-heavy chiller, consisting of two cryptic conversations between a man and two different women. After begging to be left in a car and indirectly inviting one to spend the night in his parents’ home, our speaker attests, “A friend is only a lover you’re not committed to.” It’s one of those songs you’ll want to listen to over and over again just to try to decode. Jurado will do that to you.

From then on out, the record tends to fluctuate between variants of the styles presented early on. Jurado creates a spacious, dark abyss for his delicate guitar, soulful voice, and thought-provoking poetry. The crunchy “Wallingford” is a Zuma-era Neil Young-esque rocker.  The stinging melodies of “Pear” and “Kansas City” float atop radio static, and the echoed bangs of dropped silverware. “Harborview”’s initial sparseness is soon drowned out by squealing electric guitar and martial snares. The sound is spectacular, and all the well-placed accents bring these gorgeous songs into full realization.  For a man this deep into his career, you couldn’t ask for much more.

With Saint Bartlett, Damien Jurado further proves that he is one of alternative folk’s best-kept secrets. But, after a 15-year solo career, it’s about time for somebody to let the cat out of the bag.