Graded on a Curve:
Damien Jurado,
The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania

The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania is the twentieth album in the discography of singer-songwriter Damien Jurado (there are nearly as many EPs), but it’s the first he’s issued himself, doing so through his own imprint Maraqopa Records. Self-produced and stripped-back but methodically so (inspired by records like Lou Reed’s The Bells and Paul McCartney’s Ram), it’s another powerful statement that’s also distinctive, making it a fitting inaugural release for his new label. It’s out May 14 on vinyl, compact disc, and digital.

Damien Jurado just keeps putting out solid record after solid record, productivity that is duly noted in the music press (often with accolades) and soaked up by his listenership, but also without the sort of hubbub that frequently accompanies the activities of musicians with discographies as prodigious as the one Jurado has built.

That he’s a guy with a guitar and a voice singing songs (of which there is no shortage in the world) surely adds to the fairly measured response, but on the other hand, Jurado debuted on Sub Pop (back in 1997, with Waters Ave S.) and after four full-lengths with that company, commenced a long stretch, 11-albums deep, with Secretly Canadian (a run culminating with The Horizon Just Laughed in 2018).

Since then, he’s recorded two that were co-issued by Mama Bird Recording Co. in North America and Loose in the UK and Europe, which plants us firmly in the present. In the grand scheme of things, Jurado’s achievements can be assessed as substantial and his longevity rare, considerations that only increase after time spent with The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania.

Jurado (or specifically, the album’s PR) has stated that his latest batch of songs (ten in total) occupy “a middle ground between light and shadow,” which might initially be construed as an observation of the whole as neither overly cheerful nor despairing, though upon inspection, the duality is really more complex than that, instead charting the navigation of human struggle (over half the song titles feature people’s names) in the pursuit of the positive.

Opener “Helena” effectively establishes the mood with a folky strum anchored with bass and augmented with shaker percussion as Jurado’s voice hovers in an upper register but with conversational directness, his lyrics eliding the grandiose for compact fragments of vivid portraiture. Nearing three minutes in length, the song nonetheless feels quite brief, even after numerous plays, which enhances the aura of prelude.

With the following cut “Tom,” full-on drumming enters the equation, adding heft as the huskier side of Jurado’s vocal range contrasts with the crisp attractiveness of his guitar playing. And with the entrance of vibraphone in “Dawn Pretend,” matters get downright pretty, an atmosphere that’s again deepened by Jurado’s singing, which is as strong throughout the record as I’ve ever heard him.

Given that he’s the consistent focal point across The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania, this is doubly impressive. Notably, Josh Gordon helps to widen the instrumental palette, as he handles bass, drums (including drum machine), percussion, vibraphone, organ, and mellotron. By my count, this marks his fourth LP with Jurado, and the third where he’s the only other significant contributor.

Still, this album maps a sizable progression with veteran savvy, so that it connects as a fresh chapter in a larger body of work rather than as an abrupt departure. Inside the album’s narrative, “Song for Langston Birch” reasserts the folky quality of “Helena” and then infuses it with swells of mellotron before the drums belatedly kick in.

“Song for Langston Birch” and the next track, the deliciously spare “Minnesota,” reinforce Jurado’s essential path and do so directly prior to his one big swerve into the deep weeds, as “Johnny Caravella” (which opens side two) features an increasingly noisy blast of amplifier squall, though importantly, the racket bursts forth in the cut’s second half, only after the song has set the appropriate level of intensity.

After it, the tidy “Joan,” consisting of only vocals and guitar and spanning just over a minute in length, hits the ear as a return to the LPs foundation, or at very least, as a resetting of the stage. From there, “Hiding Ghosts” extends the air of the truly solo. As they mingle forcefulness with the gentle, both tracks emphasize Jurado’s classic singer-songwriter bona fides.

There’s a dangerous divide that introspective singing strummers frequently grapple with, specifically with the blandly folky on one side and songs cluttered up with extraneous instrumentation on the other, but as the subtlety of Gordon’s vibraphone during “Jennifer” underscores, The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania avoids either pitfall with aplomb.

And it’s not until closer “Male Customer #1” that my thoughts turned to Neil Young, though this isn’t at all a negative association. Rather, the lack of this similarity drives home the continued growth of Jurado’s artistry; he’s been quickly recognizable for years now, but The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania further hones this circumstance. If not unique in approach, he’s unmistakable with anybody else. For a guy with a guitar and a voice singing some songs, that’s pretty remarkable.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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