Album Review: Damien Jurado – What’s New, Tomboy?

[Mama Bird Recording Co.; 2020]

Damien Jurado really likes to name his songs after people. On his new album, What’s New, Tomboy? more than half of the tracks contain a name in their title. This isn’t inherently good or bad, but it serves as a fitting summation of Jurado’s tendency to veer toward directness. Though Tomboy continues to showcase Jurado’s ability to craft wistful and pleasing folk songs, now 25 years into his career, it feels like he is beginning to rest on his laurels. 

Tomboy marks Jurado’s third album in three years. His prolific nature is impressive, to say the least, but it’s hard not to wonder if he needs to slow down a bit. 2018’s The Horizon Just Laughed was a lush and dreamy indie-folk record, while 2019’s In The Shape of a Storm stripped his sound back to the bare essentials – with his acoustic guitar and smoldering voice making up the majority of the arrangements. Now, in 2020, Tomboy falls somewhere between his two previous albums sonically, but doesn’t offer much that’s new or exciting. 

“Fool Maria” starts with a softly plucked guitar and a warm vocal melody, yet by the end of its four-minute runtime, the song hasn’t grown into anything more than what we heard in the opening seconds. Generally speaking, folk music is simple by nature, but the main problem with Tomboy is that it doesn’t offer many interesting ideas to make up for its uncomplicated approach. 

Nothing on Tomboy sounds bad by any stretch, but with a lack of consistent development and discernable song structures, each track tends to float by one by one until you realize you’ve reached the end. This causes the weaker offerings on Tomboy to fall flat. “Arthur Aware”, for instance, repeats the same three chords and sluggish drumbeat all the way through. However, this isn’t to say Jurado isn’t capable of adding captivating moments to his songs anymore. The sudden introduction of horns halfway through “Sandra” is a lovely touch and the gentle tone of a mellotron on “Francine” adds a welcome extra layer of depth to the chorus. 

It’s no surprise, then, that the success of many of the tracks on Tomboy hinges on Jurado’s lyrics and vocal delivery, and thankfully, they are the strongest components of the record. Jurado’s sheer talent as a songsmith and his ability to make almost anything he records pleasing to the ear salvage many of the tracks. Similar to the masterwork of indie-folk legend Bill Callahan, Jurado has a way of evoking a unique type of imagery with his poetic lyrics that feels both personal and abstract. At their best, Jurado’s lyrics sound inseparable from his voice, spilling out of the songs like perfectly-aged wine into a cup. “Fool Maria” is a prime example of his writing abilities and impeccable cadence: “But you’re no fool Maria / With your half-moon crescent eyelids / Dipping like a curtain / To let you know it’s over.” 

“The End of the Road” is the biggest and boldest song on the record. “The road it is long / I can’t go it alone / I need you,” he pleads on the chorus as cymbals crash and synthesizers swell around him. It’s one of his most straightforward lyrical turns, but his delivery makes it sincere and the upbeat instrumental is a refreshing change of pace.

Jurado’s output as a musician is nothing short of incredible, but I’m worried his seeming need to be prolific will inevitably result in a drop in quality as time goes on. Taken as a whole, Tomboy is a success, but its short runtime and somewhat underdeveloped arrangements leave the impression that Jurado was more concerned with just getting this set of songs released, rather than making sure they expand his extensive catalog in a meaningful way.