In the early ’90s, Damien Jurado and Pedro the Lion’s David Bazan started playing music together. Their first project, a Christian punk band originally called the Guilty and then Coolidge, saw Jurado on bass and Bazan on drums with a rotating cast of guitarists. All together, the two played punk rock together for about six years before each pursuing their own projects. Bazan formed Pedro the Lion with five other guys, but they only played on one EP before Bazan took to it solo. Jurado, who had retreated into folk music when punk assimilated into the mainstream, signed to Sub Pop after a slew of indie cassettes and released his first record, Waters Ave. S in 1997. The careers of these two artists have undeniable parallels. Using vivid and often despairing story telling, the two have integrated themes of loss, death and redemption poignantly on many releases.
So it’s only fitting that On My Way to Absence, Jurado’s sixth proper full-length, follows the same path Pedro the Lion took with last year’s Achilles’ Heel, which was marked by influences from every era of the band’s long career. Indeed, Absence recalls moments of the country-tinged folk of 2003’s Where Shall You Take Me?, the straight-forward rock of 2002’s I Break Chairs, and the melancholy pop of his debut. The record is littered with evidence of brilliant songwriting, but the constantly shifting style ultimately prevents it from having an effective voice.
The record opens strongly with “White Center,” which comes in with finger-picked guitar and background ambience that quickly shifts into an airy chorus complete with horns and gentle drums. The record keeps momentum with the timeless folk of “Lottery,” the subtle country nuances of which recall early work by Bruce Cockburn. “Simple Hello” and closer “A Jealous Heart is a Heavy Heart” are similarly strong.
But the good impression left by these tracks is snuffed by a handful of duds. “Big Decision” focuses on the same tired melody for nearly five minutes, representing all that was bad about Northwestern indie rock in the ’90s. The contrived Neil Young-guitar-crunch on “I Am the Mountain” is a pathetic and transparent attempt at rocking out. “Icicles” tries too hard to switch up the rhythm, coming across as adult-contemporary world music.
On My Way to Absence could have been such a moving album, had Jurado employed some quality control. Instead, the record is full of wonderfully written songs that fail to work together as a whole. Plagued by pockets of repetitive riffs and fruitless experimentation, On My Way to Absence is not the long-awaited record to immortalize Damien Jurado as a timeless songwriter.