An unexpectedly lush set of tunes from a determined minimalist, this ninth full-length by Damien Jurado paints delicately the indeterminate outlines of remembered love, broken connections and imagined release. Recorded more or less in isolation at producer Richard Swift’s Oregon studio, the album nonetheless is well populated, teeming in its understated way with translucent textures of strings, piano, acoustic and electric guitar, and scratchy found sounds. It suggests and evokes rather than delineates. From transcendental “Cloudy Shoes” on down, you are not always sure what is happening in a song, only that it is freighted with rumination, rue and fond remembrance. One gets the sense that the narrative – in story-ish songs like “Rachel and Cali” or album-stopping “Kansas City” – continues in the pauses, that what Jurado tells you is only a scrap or two of what he’s seeing, thinking, recalling.
The disc begins with “Cloudy Shoes,” dense and dramatic with Spectorish, wall-of-sound strings. Jurado’s worn voice sounds more vulnerable than ever within this glossy arrangement, tremulous and cracking slightly. His voice doubled, intercutting with itself, sounds like a rambling internal monologue that gets stuck on certain phrases or images and can’t quite let them go. This combination – of unexpected lavishness in the arrangements and starkly minimal singing – gives Saint Bartlett an eerie luminousness. It’s an aura that extends to its most carefree and rock conventional moments – the piano rolling, tin-pot tapping “Arkansas,” the electric Neil Young crunch and drone of “Wallingford.”
But takes its strongest form on “Kansas City.” This song, coming just past the halfway point, is the quiet climax of Saint Bartlett, its guitar patterns emerging with gentle reluctance out of a hiss of radio noise. Jurado sings with characteristic simplicity in the cut, almost breathing rather than singing its heart-sore lyrics. You can make out a story about a man whose father took off early, whose mother just died, making some sort of connection with the lost dad and finding it unsatisfactory. And yet, the ellipses yawn like canyons here, the meaning picks up and meanders off like errant tracks in the woods, maybe intentionally laid down, but maybe not. But even without knowing the contours of the story, you can absorb the mood, the atmosphere — almost the air and space. It’s immersive and mysterious at the same time, perhaps more affecting because of its open-endedness.
It’s in songs like “Kansas City” that the arrangements start to seem less of an externality than an essential element in the work; they establish mood in a diffuse, ambiguous sort of way that allows you to inhabit the songs without really knowing what they’re saying. Jurado may not be as concrete or direct as he has been in the past, but his ability to conjure emotion is still very, very strong.