Damien Jurado has been referred to as the Raymond Carver of songwriters, and not without good reason. His songs tend to be quiet, tense, and awfully dark. He has spent much of his career mining melancholy and heartbreak and carving out his own brand of both, and making beautiful, hushed songs along the way.
But on Saint Bartlett, he steps away from his threadbare folk sound into something more expansive. And this shift — from terse balladry to huge dreamy haze — works well, as producer (and the only other musician on the record) Richard Swift shows us the faint glimmer of hope in Jurado’s songs through lush instrumentation.
Some of this reinvents Jurado’s sound wholly. “Cloudy Shoes” with its lilting strings, smudged piano chords and handclaps, stretches out around Jurado, who is himself echoing out into the space around him. “Arkansas” reaches out in a similar way, snapping off a doo-wop-style piano riff and clanging percussion floatinng behind Jurado’s baying. This isn’t just a sonic shift either. In the last couple of records — 2006’s And Now That I’m In Your Shadow and 2008’s Caught in the Trees — Jurado’s tails of woe turned in on themselves. They were beautiful but in a closed off way. On Saint Bartlett, Jurado is reaching out to us. It’s an album you can get involved in, that you can relate to a little more, perhaps, than those records.
Of course, Jurado hasn’t completely redone himself as an artist. There’s still plenty of dark to be found here. “A friend is just a lover you’re not committed to,” he sings on “Rachel and Cali,” reminding us that the wounds from past records aren’t totally healed. And Jurado often sings (once again) to places rather than the people in them, highlighting a painful disconnect. But still, the lines that are most revealing here are lines that hint at the light coming. “I’m still trying to fix my mind,” he insists early on, something we wouldn’t have heard a couple of records ago.
But for all the sonic changes and glimmers of hope, the best stuff here still sounds like boilerplate Jurado. Swift’s production is at its best when it adds subtle atmospherics to the fragile melody of “Kansas City,” or the dusty flourishes to the chorus of “Harborview.” Excluding “Cloudy Shoes” and “Arkansas,” less is always more from Swift on Saint Bartlett. When he pushes too hard, he can crowd Jurado, the way he does with thick distorted guitars on “Wallingford” or with the obtrusive, simplistic drums that almost undo the otherwise excellent “Throwing Your Voice.”
On the whole, though, Saint Bartlett is yet another fine record from Damien Jurado, and mostly Swift succeeds in helping him explore new sounds and textures. Jurado has always had his eye on the horizon, but now he seems to be more interested in sunrises than sunsets. So while he’s always been true to himself, and we’ve always been able to appreciate the beauty in that — no matter how sad — with this record we can get a little closer to his world, feel it out, and maybe see how it lines up with ours.