Album Review: Damien Jurado – The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania

[Maraqopa; 2021]

With The Monster Who Hated PennsylvaniaDamien Jurado continues to express his exceptional talent for melody and postmodern narrative. Offering 10 songs that, in terms of production techniques, frequently hearken back to earlier and relatively austere templates, Jurado’s latest brings to mind his second album, Rehearsals for Departure; the David Bazan-produced I Break Chairs; and the ever-haunting Caught in the Trees, released in 2008, prior to his fertile collaborations with producer Richard Swift, who died in 2018.

Monster opens with “Helena”, Jurado’s moody voice and elegantly minimal guitar accompanied by a loping bass and folksy shakers. “We were never as big as the world,” he sings, evoking a palpable sense of impermanence, how despite our pressing aspirations and inexhaustible longing, we exist only briefly, a human lifetime quickly subsumed by the continuities of history and evolution. He later modifies the line, proclaiming, “You were never as big as you were told,” pointing to the way in which our parents and support-givers often suggest that we’re unlimited in our potential and somehow exempt from the suffering that life brings, when in actuality each person is inevitably visited by disappointment and loss. This theme is reiterated in “Song for Langston Birch”, which features a sumptuous melody undergirded by a jazzy bass part and synth-y swells. Part oblique love song, part oblique commentary on the frequently anticlimactic nature of life, the track at points borrows from, without fully embracing, the more maximal and psychedelic approaches of Jurado’s last three Swift-produced albums, 2012’s Maraqopa, 2014’s Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun, and 2016’s Visions of Us on the Land.

“I walked out in the morning rain / you stayed here in the room,” Jurado sings at the opening of “Minnesota”, later adding: “Don’t go I heard him say / don’t go now gone,” partly a tribute to an unnamed and mysterious character vaguely recollected, partly an impressionistic portrait that points, once again, to the relentless passage of time and the ineluctability of oblivion. On “Hiding Ghosts”, Jurado slightly strains his voice, a strummy guitar reverberating in the background. His lyrics occur as a series of descriptions and impressions collaged in such a way as to create an abstract narrative, a style that brings to mind Charles Simic’s poems, in which specific and uber-quotidian images are placed within elusively mysterious contexts; what might be dubbed semi-surrealism or American surrealism (as opposed to the more purist European/post-WWI brand that evolved from Dadaism and is associated with automatic writing and Andre Breton, et al).

“Jennifer” opens with a lightly picked guitar accompanied by a high-pitched synth-y drone. Again, Jurado creates aesthetic unities via elusive melodic and lyrical elements; it’s a track that, while thematically oblique, is emotionally direct and viscerally accessible. “Male Customer #1” opens with the line, “The loneliest place I’ve ever been / is in your arms.” The song makes use of a doubling effect, Jurado’s lead vocal central and untreated; another vocal, more peripheral and floating in reverb, mixed into the background. The two voices are commingled, integrating lament and elegy while conjuring what feels like a dreamscape.

Over the course of his career, Jurado has mastered the ability to evoke sublime feelings through simple yet transportive melodies, precise lyricism, and slight but significant modulations in his vocal delivery, the latter aptitude reminiscent of Dylan, Springsteen, and Leonard Cohen. With The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania, Jurado has released another moving and memorable album, gaining further traction in what might be considered the third phase of his career.