Sufjan Stevens was once enrolled in an MFA program in creative writing and named a song after a Flannery O’Connor story, but I’ve always thought of Damien Jurado as the truer, better storyteller. Problem is that on full-length number nine, Caught in the Trees, Jurado seems to be running out of tales to tell.
There are only so many songs one can sing about extramarital affairs, mental instability, and jealous, murderous love. When Jurado wrapped all of these themes up into excellent early-career songs like “Medication,” off 2000’s Ghost of David, the results were bracing and brilliant. Even “What Were the Chances,” off Jurado’s previous album, 2006’s And Now That I’m in Your Shadow, mined similar material to near-cathartic effect.
But the more times Jurado reiterates this basic love-triangle tale, the more it loses its emotional punch. The narrator of “Dimes” is using the titular coins to call up his lover’s husband, bold yet worried about the chance of violence breaking out “when it all goes down.” “Sheets” switches the point of view to that of a cuckolded husband. Full of frustration, he asks his wife, “Is he still coming around like an injured bird needing a nest?” Later, he expresses disgust at having to sleep in the same bed where the cheating occurs. “Paper Kite” has a man constantly hanging around outside his lover’s house, which could be interpreted as devotion or stalking; and closer “Predictive Living” mentions yet “another jealous husband to be killed.”
All of this is still quite gut-wrenching, yes, but I find Caught in the Trees to be better when it explores other themes. It’s hard to make out what exactly the narrative of “Gillian Was a Horse” is, but that doesn’t matter since the song is so damn good. It’s easily the best country-folk-pop song Jurado has ever crafted and one of 2008’s best tracks, with urgently strummed verses that barrel into a catchy chorus complete with rolling, barroom piano. “Best Dress” finds Jurado revisiting the backwoods eeriness that made his 2003 album, Where Shall You Take Me?, so haunting. Think more O’Connor and less Raymond Carver, whose stories Jurado’s songs about infidelity owe a large debt to.
It’s interesting to note that on these two standout songs on the album Jurado was aided heavily by Jenna Conrad, who he has long made music with (she gets co-writer credit on “Gillian” and full credit on “Best Dress”). Like a much less libidinous Leonard Cohen or Serge Gainsbourg, Jurado seems to always have burgeoning female talent around. He helped cultivate Rosie Thomas’s talents, and now Conrad seems similarly on the path to making a name for herself. (Another of Jurado’s longtime collaborators, Eric Fisher, also plays on Caught.)
Maybe all Jurado needs to do to get out of his thematic rut is to visit some new source material, like Stevens traipsing from state to state. So, Damien, allow this longtime fan to close by offering up some advice: Put your collected O’Connor and Carver back on the shelf, and file away your vinyl copy of Springsteen’s Nebraska. Start reading stories from authors who realize the short tale can be conducive to lighter topics — T.C. Boyle and Barry Hannah come to mind. Ditto for singer-songwriters: Listen to someone who can be wry and humorous. I hear Yep Roc just re-released some early Robyn Hitchcock records.