If anyone resembles Richard Buckner, an alt-country musician who went full oracle twenty years into his career, it’s Damien Jurado. A taciturn sensitive-lumberjack type with a voice like something heavy he’s carrying on his back, Jurado also winds brambly acoustic guitar lines through abstract poetic language, incanting the names of small towns and vast states, mysterious women and disreputable men. And now, he also marks two decades of recording with a masterpiece that divulges a new ability to concretize the ethereal with direct songwriting. This, a 180 from his recent trajectory, is more delightful for being so unexpected. Then again, after twelve albums of turning bad breaks into pretty music, why shouldn’t thirteen be Jurado’s lucky number?
The Horizon Just Laughed is stuffed with so many people and places it’s more like teleportation than travel. In less than forty minutes, we’re whisked through Nebraska, Maine, Arizona, Minnesota, Oklahoma, Texas, and Jurado’s home state of Washington, with stops in Seattle, Wenatchee, and Mount Rainier. The songs are addressed, often in epistolary form and always confidingly, to female interlocutors with names like Mary, Lucy, Vera, Alice, Mali H., Cindy Lee, Lou-Jean, and Florence-Jean. The dramatis personae include novelist Thomas Wolfe, inventor Garrett Morgan, sitcom actor Marvin Kaplan, easy-listening bandleaders Percy Faith and Ray Conniff, Peanuts creator Charles Schultz, that news anchor who was held hostage on-air, the guy who wrote “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh,” the angel Moroni, Lucifer, and God.
Belying this abundance, the music is stripped down and close-miked so that it pools in your ears as if it were coming from inside your head. Spectral campfire song “Over Rainbows and Rainier” is so intimate you can hear the creak of Jurado’s chair, the soft click of saliva. The songs variously evoke Motown, soft rock, classic girl groups, blues, seventies country-rock, and even disco without being any of them; the trickling soul music of “Dear Thomas Wolfe” and the barrelhouse pop of “Percy Faith” are cut from the same homespun cloth. Jurado’s soft voice is filling in with deeper tones; it seems to go higher and lower at the same time, and it’s never sounded better, recorded with holographic presence and warmly bathed in electric organs, strings, horns, and Anna Lynne Williams’s entrancing close harmonies, all so sparing that songs like “The Last Great Washington State” turn imperceptibly from miniatures to epics.
I adored some of Jurado’s early records, like Rehearsals for Departure and Ghost of David, and the wounded beauty he found in a world of runaways and dropouts, bus stops and gas stations, pill addictions and schizophrenia, cheating and divorce. Whenever “Medication” is playing, it’s the saddest song in the world. But I found his rainy folk-rock in the aughties more hit-or-miss and his semi-psychedelic trilogy of the 2010s downright leaden, although a lot of critics liked it. (Saint Bartlett was pretty good.) In contrast, Horizon is effortless and in-the-pocket, placing the melodies and lyrics in high relief. “Allocate” casts an unbroken spell: Jurado’s voice is barely a purple bruise on the hushed orchestration, yet his one-word chorus tolls with the otherworldly authority of a tower bell.
There’s always something pulling the gauzy songs taut from within, especially in the home stretch, where Latin rhythms and acoustic blues-rock keep the muted palette intact. Even the timeless mists of “Allocate” are stirred by an agile fretted bass; this is movingly solemn music with an emphasis on “moving.” It outlines lyrics that resolve the literal narratives of Jurado’s early albums and the opaque Christian sci-fi of his recent ones into something evocative between story and sensibility, catching rich traces of lives and dreams in swift, longing swipes. Tapping an idiosyncratic vein of twentieth-century Americana, “Percy Faith” is a tour-de-force of clever quatrains to rival Randy Newman, though the single greatest line appears on “1973”: “Somebody shouted your name and I swear they yelled fire.”
I mean, damn. Jurado seems like one of those songwriters destined to be overlooked in his lifetime. That would be just like him. This exquisite surprise breakthrough ought to turn his luck, if there’s any fairness in the world, which there probably isn’t. (Sorry, been listening to a lot of Damien Jurado.) But the hopelessness that loomed over his prior work gives way to a sort of circumspect hope on The Horizon Just Laughed, a new sense of things working out or having the chance to, and that’s victory enough.