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Damien Jurado: The Voice in the Wilderness

Damien Jurado: The Voice in the Wilderness Rock Cousteau

Rock Cousteau

Matthew Becklo - published on 01/31/14

The third rail of rock and roll is...God?

Seattle folk singer Damien Jurado’s 12th studio album, Maraqopa, signaled a major transformation for the dour painter-turned-singer. Unlike previous albums, it was a big, bold expedition – one inspired by a dream Jurado had had about a guy who forsakes his identity, wanders to a strange town called Maraqopa, and “becomes transformed into this brand new creation of a person.”

That explanation – like the lyrics themselves – is beautifully multivalent. But one thing is certain: songs like “Life Away from the Garden,”“This Time Next Year,” and the unreleased B-side “Let Us All In” all explicitly delve into the meaning of sin, faith, and salvation.

Make no mistake: Damien Jurado remains worlds away from your garden variety “Christian singer,” insisting that “music should in no way shape or form be used as a platform for religion.” His lyrics are more catharsis than catechesis, and tend to draw in people like the decidedly ex-Christian Father John Misty of Fleet Foxes, who rambled somewhat incoherently about Jurado’s genius over at Spin Magazine.

Yet, he confesses to a recent blurring of his faith and his music – a process he says mirrors a Johnny Cash or a John Coltrane – crediting a sort of “awakening.”

“With Maraqopa, I think it all sort of came to light, on so many levels, emotionally, mentally and especially spiritually.” he says in one interview.  “I definitely subscribe to the Christian faith, so a lot of that came to the forefront on this newest record, for sure. … But I think it’s just because of this awakening I had, or the transformation I took on a real mental and spiritual level.”

Jurado’s latest album, Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, ventures deeper into the land of Maraqopa, expanding both the sonic and spiritual freedom of the last album. “This new record is sort of a sequel to Maraqopa, which I also did with Richard Swift,” Jurado explains in the album trailer. “It is about a guy who disappears on a search, if you will, for himself – and never goes home.”

What immediately jumps out in the first single, “Silver Timothy,” is the distinct sound Jurado and Swift have cooked up: a sort of wild mashup of psychedelic 60s rock, 70s soul, and spacy dub that dwarfs the energy of Maraqopa. “It’s almost like the record before was a ball of silly putty,” Jurado explains. “And now we’re taking it and we’re just stretching it out.”

In the cryptic music video for “Silver Timothy,” a handful of people wander through desert terrain after what appears to be a car crash. One interview with Jurado suggests that the inspiration for the video is all too real: Jurado once learned that two people died in a crash at an intersection he had passed through just moments before.

“These two people die instantly and their car catches on fire, and that really shook me up,” Jurado says. “And it’s been shaking me up ever since. I’m not saying to live like you’re going to die at any moment, but that really put things in perspective for me. … I’m going to hug my wife as hard as I can and let her know how much I love her, and love my friends as much as I can, too, because you don’t know. You just never know.”

“Silver Timothy” gives way to two other album highlights: the drum-heavy “Return to Maraqopa” and the cinematic “Jericho Road,” which unfolds like an Ennio Morricone spaghetti western soundtrack on steroids. (To hear an earlier acoustic version of “Jericho” is to realize Swift’s mastery on the boards: his dramatic falsetto, reverb, and percussion turn the tune into a veritable world of its own.)

The album’s spiritual center shines on these two tracks – a center focused not so much on giving the right answers, but asking the right questions. “Are you a signal?” Jurado bellows on “Return.” “Where is your station?” What follows is a sometimes dark and disorienting search to answer that question; but a whole host of spiritual references – a garden, rolling away the stone, resurrection, and eternity – dazzle the album’s darkness with the light of faith.

Who are Malcolm, Donna, Timothy, Katherine? Maybe only Jurado knows. But these brothers and sisters, each with a unique track of their own, all seem to be on the move. Like Gabriel Marcel’s “homo viator,” they are pilgrims, travelers – songs incapable of stasis. “It is of the soul and of the soul alone,” Marcel wrote, “that we can say with supreme truth that 'being' necessarily means 'being on the way.’”

The album’s last track, “Suns In Our Mind,” is a whimsical, almost jester-like au revoir. But the journey doesn’t end there: a deluxe version of the album includes acoustic covers and two new tracks – “Plains to Crash” and “All For You” – which heap pure gold on the array of silver. “Help me, Lord, to see the road ahead of me,” he sings on “Plains.” “Show me the way…”

Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son is a wild, eclectic quest, running the gamut from understated poetry to unabashed revelry, and always with a deepening sense of mystery. But for all that, a jarring liner note in the album makes the horizon crystal clear: “All glory and praise be to the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Billy Corgan of Smashing Pumpkins recently confessed on CNN that the "third rail" of rock and roll – namely, God – is the future of the genre, its “great unexplored territory.”

But Damien Jurado – like a voice crying out in the wilderness of Maraqopa – is already there, patiently waiting for the rest of us to catch up.

Matthew Becklois a husband and father-to-be, amateur philosopher, and cultural commentator at Aleteia and Word on Fire. His writing has been featured in First Things, The Dish, and Real Clear Religion.

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