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Damien Jurado
On My Way To Absence

Secretly Canadian

here is a lyric on Damien Jurado’s 2000 album Ghost of David that confirmed me as a Jurado fan. It is a simple turn of phrase, the kind of moment in a song that’s as easily missed as heralded and it stuck in me like a pin. The line is from the song “Johnny Go Riding” and goes, “She's wearing a beautiful party dress / And wanting you to dance.” As the closing image of the song it struck me as brilliant. There I sat in the decaying organ of the song’s final moments and all I could think of was a young girl in a blue dress smiling coyly against a freshly painted fence, paper lanterns swaying slightly on an early summer breeze, the smell of beer and cut grass drifting by, crickets trilling into dusk. All that from a simple phrase delivered in a weary voice. This has always been my attraction to Jurado: his ability to translate his song/stories into lasting images. The kind of images that demand repeated listening. Despite a few albums where Jurado appeared to abandon this strength it seems that he never forgot how to do it. On My Way To Absence is very much a return to what Jurado does best.

Musically, Jurado has ranged widely from album to album. Whether he’s plying the folk pop sound of Rehearsals For Departure and Waters Ave. S., the more ambient spaces of Ghost of David, or the Americana rock of I Break Chairs and Where Shall You Take Me?, he has always tried to root his songs in his stories, his images, his vibrant imaginings. On On My Way To Absence Jurado and longtime collaborator Eric Fisher have produced an album that sets itself firmly within Americana territory though such convenient terms don’t do this album justice. In both music and lyric Jurado makes a noise that’s more rooted in that hazily nebulous term “American” than in the clearly defined limits of Americana.

On My Way To Absence begins with the quiet acoustic guitar strum and gentle piano of “White Center.” It’s clear from Jurado’s opening salvo that he will be mining a territory similar in atmosphere if not literal imitation of such southern gothic writers as Flannery O’Connor and Carson McCullers. Jurado’s characters struggle with isolation, jealousy, and the inadequacies of attempting to communicate across a void created by personal bias, half understood reckoning, and blind allegiance to flawed personality. Jurado accomplishes this with simple vocal melodies and telling lyrics delivered in measured lines. What kind of place is it where a shooting resulting from a “wild night” doesn’t even make the paper? It is both the oddly named “White Center” and the world we currently live in.

The song “Lottery” is one of those Jurado songs in which the simplest phrases become enormously evocative. The sound is gentle, almost like a lullaby, as Jurado shares vocal duties with Rosie Thomas in an evocation of bad luck (“Misfortune got you like a sickness”) that still manages to sound hopeful. But it’s the line, “I hope the mourners will bring plastic flowers / They’ll drink to your death with pink champagne” that makes the song despite abutting against its more pedestrian counter part “I made her tears / Into this song.” It’s the kind of carefully imagined detail that we expect but haven’t always got from Jurado. On On My Way To Absence Jurado provides far more satisfying moments than dubious ones, and that’s no small feat when trafficking in the kind of bottom of the barrel human emotion that Jurado has made his trademark.

”I Am The Mountain” shows Jurado turning up in the amps for a song that would be comfortable on Magnolia Electric Co.’s Trials And Errors. It’s all Neil Young rock and bombast, breaking up the folkier elements of the album. Similarly “Sucker” is as upbeat a tune musically as Jurado has written.

The album’s final track “A Jealous Heart Is A Heavy Heart” is very much a statement of purpose for this record despite the fact it’s a closer. Jurado’s parting words “grow old with me” cascading down the mists of a fading piano line, violin, electric guitar, and the echo of distantly otherworld keyboard noise (faded radio transmissions from a decaying heart? The creeping exhalations of resignation?) seem like the thinnest filament cast back to these lonely characters, a small taste of hope in one of Jurado’s saddest though finest efforts to date.

Reviewed by: Peter Funk

Reviewed on: 2005-05-05

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