There is no place called Maraqopa, not a real one outside of Damien Jurado’s new record. There is a Maricopa, Arizona, and it oddly comes close to describing the record. It’s a place where the population grew 4080% between 2000 and 2010, but it’s also a vast expanse of suburban developments outside of Phoenix that was devastated by the housing crisis. It’s a place ever-expanding, but also desolate, populated but worried.
So it is with Jurado and producer Richard Swift’s world on Maraqopa. The two continue with the fresh sonic landscapes they blew open on 2010’s Saint Bartlett, once again transforming Jurado’s folk songs into deeply textured dream-pop numbers. But where Saint Bartlett felt effectively gauzy and alien, Maraqopa feels like a more familiar expanse, something dusty and earthen, always surprising yet inevitable.
The album opens, on “Nothing Is the News,” with a few seconds of Jurado strumming his acoustic guitar, just enough to remind you of his spare early days. Then, his voice comes in, deeply treated with echo, and from there the song erupts in a psychedelic squall. Cymbals ripple in the background, and the song runs over five minutes, buzzing with tangles of electric guitar freak outs. It’s a curious mix of restraint in Jurado’s voice and utter chaos from the instruments, and more than anything Jurado has produced before it sounds like crazed classic rock. You never lose the Americana foundation of the song, but the textures distort into something bigger, something equal parts troubled and convincingly free.
Those two poles, worry and freedom, inform the record well. If Maraqopa is a place, even an imagined sonic one, it is one Jurado is tied to. So this isn’t about running away; it’s about making the most of the landscape around you. There isn’t out-and-out heartache here so much as the iminent threat of it. “Don’t let go, I need you to hang around,” Jurado pleads on “Museum of Flight.” Meanwhile, on the title track, Jurado warns “It’s your oldest fear, that the love you can hear will go.” The songs seem downright haunted by this worry. Backing vocals coo in the background like a ghostly version of the Beach Boys, piano ring and clang out into space, keyboards plink and wobble uncertainly.
But as much as Jurado digs into these worries, there’s also coping and, in that, some sort of faint hope to be found in these songs. In fact, these aren’t songs about heartache so much as they are songs about songs. Over and over again, Jurado talks about the power of songs — as a document of our wants and fears, as an artifact of things lost or gone, as a projection of ourselves. “Reel to Reel” is the best example, and the best song on the record, as sound in the song itself warp like old tape and Jurado sings of a legacy, of the document left behind by someone who has passed on. Jurado belts out his connection to “the greatest songs I’ll never hear from a band you started in your mind,” showing us not just the person he lost, but the things that can never be created now that they’re gone.
The inverse of this, of course, is that songs also give us something to remember. They evoke a feeling, heartbroken or joyous, over and over again, and Maraqopa celebrates that in its lovelorn way. The deep, complex layers of these songs mirror the complications of how we understand and identify with songs, how music — or art or work or landscape — can somehow define us if we let it. In that way, we also see how Jurado finds his voice in all this. The layers peel away by degrees as the record moves on, and Maraqopa slowly shifts from a record of sonic textures to a platform for Jurado’s rangy, excellent singing. By the time we get to closer “So On, Nevada,” there is little more than an organ and faint backing vocals to accent Jurado’s guitar and voice. His singing is high in the mix and powerful, a full-throated statement of intention. When he admits the person with him “is dragging [him] down,” it’s not in self-pity, it’s a declaration that he’s fine, that he doesn’t need someone “just hanging around.” The new home he’s found, in this place called Maraqopa, is all the comfort he needs, a place to be alone without being lonely.
“We are songs to be sung,” Jurado claims on “Mountains Still Asleep.” We are both the document and the documented. We are tied to our worry and also the only people who can pull ourselves free from it. Maraqopa exists in that space, between crisis and catharsis, and manages a subtle hope that Jurado has been working toward his entire career. As strong as he and Swift’s efforts were on Saint Bartlett, they outdo themselves here. If it’s predecessor was a transmission from some lonesome satellite, Maraqopa scratches its messages into the leeched dirt of some abandoned lot, some place left behind, where something new can be built or grown. Because the more these songs scratch at that dried surface, the more fertile soil they reveal underneath.