Caught in the Trees
Each Damien Jurado album has been the ideal mix of the familiar and the new, like an old friend returning in new clothes. After a modest 1997 debut with Waters Ave S., he perfected his vignette-type folk rock with the more confident and deliciously melodic Rehearsals for Departure (1999). Instead of a conventional follow-up, he released Postcards and Audio Letters (2000), an auditory collage of answering machine messages and anonymous voice recordings he’d picked up in thrift stores, material that had served him well as songwriting fodder.
On Ghost of David (also 2000) he came as close as he ever has to soul-baring intimacy — the title refers to a dream he had of his close friend David Bazan — by becoming more confessional than he had in the past; at the same time he gave the then-obscure vocalist Rosie Thomas a track (“Parking Lot”) to herself. Then came the amped-up, ton-of-bricks headsmack of I Break Chairs (2002) with the four-piece Gathered in Song, a release that split his fanbase into two camps: those with a strict definition of what Jurado’s music ought to sound like, and those who allowed him a bit more room for experimentation. I Break Chairs was then followed by another head fake (albeit one that would please the first of the two camps), the warm, spare, and rootsy Where Shall You Take Me? (2003). And so on, at a pace of almost an album per year.
Which brings us to Caught in the Trees, at first listen the most seamless addition to his discography yet. The band that performed on And Now That I’m in Your Shadow (2006) — Jurado along with Jenna Conrad and Eric Fisher — reappears here with largely the same instrumental agenda, though in noticeably better spirits at the outset. “Gillian Was a Horse,” the album’s opening track, is the quintessential stick-in-your-head kind of tune that makes for a great single (no surprise, then, that it’s the album’s first), with overlapping male and female vocals and splashes of honky tonk piano.
But I’ll be damned if I know what the song’s about. Who are Jurado and Conrad singing to when they deliver the lines, “I’m tired of lying for you / I will not hold your hand / and pretend I’m your lover”? What does the “town’s hopeless romantic [who] / died alone in the carpark of a local library” have to do with anything? And where do Gillian and her (his?) equine traits fit into it all?
On the following track, the exquisite “Trials,” Conrad’s vocal line — consisting of nothing more than a ghostly run of “ah”s and “oooh”s — threads Jurado’s acoustic guitar and dashes of (presumably) glockenspiel together. But here, too, there’s no discernible interlocutor; Jurado is appealing to a vague someone about a vague something: “Tied to your waist / I’m a ship on a chain / I’ll make them think your death was rehearsed / You can come back / When it’s your turn.” There’s nothing concrete. We’re being given the fragments; we have to put them together ourselves, in whatever shape we choose.
These interpretational lyrics are uncharacteristic of Jurado, who has always been closer to a Yates than a Yeats. Any listener who’s followed him for any length of time might therefore feel uneasy with Caught in the Trees: not for its style of music, but for its core shift in how the songwriter approaches his subjects. The sung tales of down-and-outers, free spirits who were kidnapped as children, or spiteful trailer park relationships, each with a set cast of characters and clear story arc, are found only now and then on Caught in the Trees (“Dimes,” for example: “I’ve got dimes by the dozen / I’m placing a call to the husband / Does he know about me at all?”), and nearly all in the latter half when the disc retreats into a shadowy corner — one normally occupied by Mark Lanegan and Red House Painters — to brood.
For that reason alone, Caught in the Trees, despite its negligible musical differences with the majority of Jurado’s back catalogue, is potentially another I Break Chairs moment in his career. (This holds true in both the general and specific sense, as I Break Chairs is a close cousin of Caught in the Trees in terms of lyrical approach.) The new album’s abstract, impressionistic songs, their surprising lack of the narrative anchor that in some ways defines Jurado’s music, isn’t a simple change of clothes and a new hairdo. That familiar friend has come back speaking a foreign language.
This metamorphosis could lead to another polarizing debate over which fan’s or critic’s definition of Damien Jurado is the right one, and whether or not Jurado himself would be better off sticking to it. But that would unnecessarily distract from a beautiful, moving, accomplished, and wide-ranging album, one on which every track has its place and a three-piece comes off sounding as unified as the lone name credited on its cover. If anything, Caught in the Trees should preclude that debate by showing exactly how Damien Jurado isn’t simply one thing or the other. Mellow or upbeat, extravagant or economical, abstract or literal, one guy or three people, it’s all him, and it all just somehow works.
Damien Jurado: www.damienjurado.com