Damien Jurado has always been about simple. Strumming his guitar and accompanied by a hushed violin, some tinkling piano keys, or brushes caressing a tom, he spins tales of heartbreak set in sparse landscapes, conjuring images of flat Texas plains and old trucks zooming along dirt roads, trailing clouds of dust. But Saint Bartlett, his ninth album, calls to mind a different geography: the lush greens of the Seattle native’s Pacific Northwest (the album was recorded in Oregon): rain dribbling on tree leaves, a melancholy soul with a picture window, a cup of tea, and time. It is a record of ramshackle beauty.
Jurado has continued the work he began in isolated spots on 2008’s Caught In The Trees: orchestral arrangements, overdubs, and his usual melancholia replaced by a sense of wistful – dare we say it – playfulness. He has left behind the hard-bitten working-class lives of 2003’s Where Shall You Take Me and the heartbroken suburban adulterers of 2006’s And Now That I’m In Your Shadow. Still, the melancholy bard retains a tinge of darkness as he spins tales of growing up and accepting.
Saint Bartlett was recorded in a week, with Jurado and producer Richard Swift playing all the instruments. There was little in the way of rehearsal or polishing. The album opens with “Cloudy Shoes,” a song Jurado reportedly wrote in six minutes while producer Swift was taking a phone call, and for which he recorded guitar and vocals in one unrehearsed take (other instrumentation was looped in later.) The song is a stunner, a story of a man trying to live up to an ideal self he pictures in his head. When he tells this image “You have a way about you/I wish that I had” one can hear the longing in his voice, the knowledge he has work to do, shaded with the hope of someone who believes he can achieve this longed-for state of grace.
This sense of hope and longing permeates the entire album. “Rachel and Cali,” a throwback to the simpler arrangements of his past work, is a sort of call-and-response about an unrequited love between two young people that ends on the melancholy note of one telling the other “Sometimes I wish you knew/How I keep living for you/A friend is just a lover/You’re not committed to,” punctuated by lonely taps on a xylophone. “Kansas City,” a sparse throwback to Jurado’s past work, is underscored by the sounds of a car braking and voices on a radio fading in and out of the static as the singer tells himself over and over “I know someday I will return.” On “Kalama” Jurado sings of regrets over a son’s efforts to retain his distant mother’s affections, and his gradual coming to grips with the impossibility of achieving this goal, and in “Beacon Hill” he learns to accept the loss of someone who may not have loved him after all.
Saint Bartlett may not sound like your typical Damian Jurado record, but it is a natural evolution: the sounds of an adult learning to let go and not spending time moping over past youth (the twelve songs clock in at a brisk thirty-six minutes.) It’s a new direction for Jurado, and one with territory he has the talent and maturity to mine.