When Damien Jurado plays solo sets, he sits hunched over his acoustic guitar, the curve of his spine enclosing his body in a cave-like perimeter of internal focus. Watching him feels a bit like interloping on a solitary act of worship or the working-out of a nascent creative idea—a whole crowd invading one man’s privacy. The quiet spectacle aches vulnerability, abstaining from the machismo with which many male singer-songwriter-guitarists perform their work.
In recent years, Jurado’s music wandered away from this lone-troubadour aesthetic, particularly on a trio of adventurous collaborations with the late musician/producer Richard Swift. From 2012’s Maraqopa through 2016’s Visions of Us on the Land, Jurado’s albums followed an unnamed protagonist on an extended vision quest that involved sci-fi speculation, meandering hallucination, and copious religious allusions. As a whole, the project intrigued more than it explained, but its themes inspired Swift to build psychedelic cathedrals of sound to house Jurado’s eclectic, searching lyrics. Blinkering synths, propulsive percussion, and reverb-washed guitar often submerged Jurado’s voice, dispatching the listener to soundscapes suitable for pleasant dreams or nightmarish trips depending on where one dropped the needle.
Jurado’s latest album, In the Shape of a Storm, finds the singer home from his cosmic quest and once again inhabiting a cave-like zone of introspection. The songs are built from raw materials: just Jurado’s voice, his acoustic guitar, and occasional accompaniment from Josh Gordon’s high-strung guitar, which adds ethereal sparkle to the album’s last four songs. Given the conceptual and sonic maximalism of Jurado’s recent work, In the Shape is a low-key flex demonstrating the artist’s multipurpose strength. Many of these songs arrive as rescues and strays—compositions Jurado wrote long ago but never formally recorded. That impulse to collect disparate ideas for posterity could portend an opportunistic, disorganized, or just plain lazy compilation project. Yet Jurado possesses a gift for elevated simplicity, and this quality graces In the Shape of a Storm and gives its ten songs a pleasingly rounded shape.
The album’s title nods to its sustained (and perhaps a bit overdetermined) central motif: turbulent weather systems that make warmth and safety feel especially well earned. The brief waltz “Oh Weather” turns a traveler’s prayer into a love song as Jurado intones, “Tell the storm that’s before me that I’m in a hurry to see you . . . I can no longer be in the storm.” Singing in an almost-whisper, Jurado tiptoes across his melody with a nimbleness that recalls Nick Drake’s melancholic take on English folk. “The Shape of a Storm” delves into the theme with more substance, beginning with the lovely line “If I showed up in the shape of a storm / Would you recognize me?” Like others, this song explores romantic accountability and commitment that verges on desperation: “If I knew how, I would make myself known / And cause the sky to open.” The hymn-like “Throw Me Now Your Arms” dresses itself in the storm metaphor only to shrug it off and denude a straightforward sentiment: “Let me be the first to tell you I would give up my life / Every day, as the tides grow closer, it is all that’s on my mind.” The vast scale of geological time often creeps into Jurado’s songs, and here that scale works to lift a torch song into a philosophical meditation on the brevity of human life.
In the Shape reflects Jurado’s eerie facility for capturing melodies that feel like they’ve been around for centuries, passed between hands and voices until the material achieves a worn-in resonance. Like Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings’s genius for revivalism that doesn’t cloy, Jurado’s material includes some old-timey touches that charm without irony. “Where You Want Me to Be” comes closest to a dance song, though not a particularly hip one; its shuffling rhythm and sincere refrain could warm the dance floor at an old folks’ home. “Newspaper Gown” alludes to a friends-with-benefits situation through a veil of modesty that became unnecessary decades ago: “So we let them keep guessing ‘til they figure us out / Our made-up wedding in your newspaper gown.”
It can be tempting for musicians who launched their careers making roots music to over-experiment on subsequent work; Jurado’s fellow Seattle natives The Head and the Heart are currently stuck in a glossy, overproduced no-man’s-land that obscures the talent for melody, harmony, and acoustic instrumentation that made them famous. Over the course of his career, Jurado has journeyed to the outer limits of his consciousness and made it back, very much intact, to the songwriting fundamentals with which he started. Wherever he turns his attention next, In the Shape of a Storm proves that nothing has gotten lost along the way.
Listen to Damien Jurado, live at Daytrotter Studio in 2008, below.