Secret Meeting score: 85
by Philip Moss
‘Don’t give up if I ever leave town,’ Damien Jurado ironically sings on Allocate – the opener to his new record, The Horizon Just Laughed. An album mostly written in epistolary form to female recipients (Mali H, Q, Mary, Lucy, Vera, Cindy Lee, Lou-Jean, Florence-Jean and Alice), along with a smattering of influences and inspirations (bandleaders Percy Faith and Ray Connif among others), while he criss-crosses through America.
Another of these influences crops up on Dear Thomas Wolfe – an elegant piece of songwriting, with beautifully measured pianos and lush strings that sonically reflect much of the record, as he contemplates the past. Percy Faith finds Jurado ‘back home in Seattle’, but in keeping with the troubadour theme (across the album we stop off in Maine, Nebraska, Minnesota, Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas), he’s staying by the airport. Having recently partaken in a 50-state tour across America and with his family endlessly moving during his childhood, could it be that the 45-year-old has travelled so much that nowhere is really home? His heart is clearly in America, but not one particular city.
Despite being a magnificent album, the record’s centrepiece is its undisputed highlight. And in his six minute ode, it’s suggested that if his heart was to rest anywhere, it would be back in his place of birth, Washington state. Across this love letter, Jurado’s poetic verse twists and turns on the strongest song of his career, matched perfectly by a subtle, weighty melody. ‘I love you Washington state’, he half whispers towards the song’s conclusion, before fading into a moan of church organs, which leave the hair on the back your neck at end.
Having worked with the recently deceased Richard Swift on his last three records – the densely embellished psychedelic Maraqopa trilogy, with a narrative most of which came whole in a dream – this is Jurado’s first self-produced record in his twenty-year career. The furthest departure here in sound, atmosphere and mood is the sparse, Over Rainbows and Rainier – another reference to his ‘home’ state. But despite being stripped back – mostly to Jurado’s voice and acoustic guitar, with a smattering of modest guests – it would be easy to make references to him moving back to the sound of his early records such as 1999’s Rehearsals for Departures. But at no point does Horizon venture into the folk and country sensibilities of his debut. Instead, it sticks mostly to the blueprint of his voice being intimately up front in the mix, devoid of much effect to avoid distraction from the storytelling.
Perhaps the most overt pop moments on the record are Florence-Jean and Marvin Kaplan. But where the former feels comfortable in its own skin, the shuffling feel and repetitive backing vocals of the latter make it stand out for the wrong reasons. In some ways, it does offer a glimmer of light among the weighty subject matter but, unlike much of the songwriting that envelops it, does not feel vital.
Jurado’s decision to ship vinyl orders a month prior to release date, and the decision to hold The Horizon Just Laughed back from streaming services for three months from then, feels totally justified. This is an intimate record that has been designed to be consumed in one – not used as a pick n mix for playlists. On the thirteenth long player of a career spanning two decades, he’s not only gone and made his best one yet, but one of the best of 2018. Period.