Arts, Music

Damien Jurado’s Latest Is A Smart, Often Odd Investigation Of Folk Genre

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Folk revivalist Damien Jurado isn’t going anywhere. The Seattle singer-songwriter is 11 studio records into a career spanning nearly two decades with little to show for it. Aside from a humble following and lengthy discography, Jurado has almost nothing to show in the way of commercial success-this seems entirely irrelevant to Jurado, who continues making gloriously unmarketable music. Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun, his latest project and the sequel to his 2012 concept album Maraqopa, tells the story of a man caught somewhere between life and death, perhaps a subtle reflection on the career of an aging artist. The 34-minute album is a welcome break from today’s commercial folk scene-a richly layered, psychedelic record faithful to the genre’s traditions of storytelling, cryptic and complex in its orchestration.

The album begins where the last record leaves off-a man leaves his life behind in search of the utopian city Maraqopa, but crashes his car in the desert along the road there. He wanders off from the wreckage and happens upon a mysterious town in the barren, desert landscape. The brothers and sisters of the Eternal Sun are a religious cult in the village, worshipping a mysterious space deity and waiting on the “metallic clouds” to descend upon the town (“metallic clouds” is an alternative phrase Jurado uses to describe UFOs). This central conceit of the album is decidedly an odd one-it’s a hallucinatory tale of Christian import, liberally imagining the second coming.

Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun sounds something of a mix between Pink Floyd and Neil Young, heavy on the reverb, and ultimately, an unconventionally pleasant work. The album is Jurado’s third produced with Richard Swift of The Shins, and the relationship between the record and Swift’s own work is perhaps one of the more convincing comparisons to be made here. It’s an industrially infected folk sound.

The entire album was recorded in three days, and there’s definitely a feeling of rawness throughout. Most tracks on Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun could imaginably have been recorded in a single take, save for the electric layering of it all. There’s a definite ruggedness to it all that gives the album a certain backwoods folk authenticity.

Jurado is an experimental folk artist, operating far differently from Mumford & Sons and other pop folk musicians. He employs an artistic technique called found sound on “Silver Donna” and “Suns in our Mind,” which involves the modification of everyday objects to create instruments. This is very much in the vein of what Jurado set out to do with Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun-the record is an unconventional reimagining of traditional folk styles. Swift and Jurado set out to create something so uncommercial in its appeal that at moments it can feel a bit forcibly manipulated and unnaturally orchestrated.

The album’s most powerful moments come near the end, when this more experimental, hefty layering is cut away. “Silver Katherine” and “Silver Joy” operate on little more than a few soft lines of harmony and guitar. Exposed, Jurado’s shy voice is devastatingly brilliant, small and almost childlike in tone. Jurado takes up a tone of vulnerability, reminiscent of Conor Oberst of Bright Eyes, in these calm, relatively unaffected moments.

So what is to be said of Jurado, a poetic voice in Seattle, aging and unknown? Well, there’s an uncommon sense of importance in Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun. Unlike the common folk music of the day, Jurado’s work seldom feels gratuitous or wanting of sophistication. Jurado has a gift of complex storytelling-he’s a mature artist willing to work on a very intellectual level.

While modern folk is accessible, popular in its appeal, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun seems to pride itself on being cryptic and somewhat unattractive for those unwilling to spend a fair deal of time with the music. There aren’t many “ah-hah!” occasions on the album, but plenty of “huh?” lyrics along the way, and ultimately, this sense of mysterious feels apropos of the folk genre.

Folk revivalist Jurado isn’t going anywhere-and for the ambitious listener, he’s certainly worth spending some time with.

January 22, 2014