Caught In The Trees
(Secretly Canadian; 2008)
By Dom Sinacola | 6 November 2008
Damien Jurado, need it be said, is the opposite of twee: intractably masculine, he often relies on febrile and gothic characters to relate the tale of some mid-town EveryMan. We’re mincing words here, but if Jurado has ever found cause to look inward (most notoriously in self-loathing; not through some simple schlub) then he’s distanced himself so much from that trajectory that his music, especially since Where Shall You Take Me? (2003), has grown stale, expected, and flattened. Not that twee, say, or similar brands of funny-named sissy rock have succeeded in an opposite manner, but where preciousness can often build a personal character arc in method alone, Jurado’s just existed as mostly a distended voice, farmer’s tan, and dour set of closed chords. Telling, then, that Caught In The Trees, Jurado’s ninth full-length—fourth for Secretly Canadian in what I like to call his “Crying At Dusk” years—is just that: a lot of twisting and wispy attempts to break free from something without seeing the forest for its tangled units.
More telling is how the album has its best song in Jenna Conrad’s “Best Dress,” a brooding excuse for electric fuzz and stoic toms. Conrad, a recent but permanent addition to Damien Jurado the, ahem, band, usurps the man Jurado’s normally grimy, plaintive tenor by yelling right back; “put your best dress on” may be an uncreatively Springsteen-ian solution to deep relationship woes, the kind reflected and fed by a sepia, Midwestern landscape, but the simple notion that Conrad’s controlling Jurado’s commanding presence—she sings through Jurado’s chorus instead of with it and with him—is an exciting one. A Damien Jurado album isn’t an energizing or even very optimistic affair but at least, for once, it’s not only his macho id doing all the dooming. The man isn’t carelessly going through the motions of being man and musician; until now he’s just never had a force to butt up against, to unfold him from himself and lay out the pieces to pick over individually.
Which makes for the best thing he’s done since the magnificent Take Me. Caught In The Trees covers familiar ground, simultaneously bare and flourished, effortless and meticulous, but where Jurado’s lyrics have grown more abstract, still loaded with death, exhaustion, and horse metaphors but, in rarefied form, not really tied to any specific situation or memory, he’s correspondingly spread out his tools—both “Caskets” and “Gillian Was a Horse” would never find their gruff rush without electric guitar solos or lush, Silver Jews-lite honky-tonk bounce. “Sheets,” in fact, shares its chord progression with almost any vague recollection a fan may have of the 2003 album, but it sounds new, refreshed, even antsy despite its measured harmonies and predictable build. “Trials,” too, replete with Conrad’s foggy end-moans (admittedly, she’s got a lilt fit for infatuation), is a soft but bumpy number absolutely glowing with the vocal performances of its band. Confidence, something Jurado’s never had a dearth of, rules this release, hard. To a limited extent that’s the most we could have hoped for from a frustratingly demure artist.
The rest, sadly, is now-typical filler. Especially “Sorry Is For You,” a simple interlude that presages the wimpy same-ole same-ole left tailing a, let’s say, EP’s worth of more adventurous cuts. Rest assured, Damien Jurado is almost onto something; he’s got notions of the songs best left behind, the tortured image best left to stagnate in the archaic ruins of his already bloated canon. If only he could admit that his Nebraska is dead and done, brush the leafy detritus out of his hair, and tramp forward content to abdicate representation of his sad-sack brothers.