On The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania, Damien Jurado gathers up ten stories of people determined not to be broken by their dire circumstances. “The world is a liar, the stars are a must,” he sings over brushed drums, a circling bassline, and acoustic guitar on “Helena,” which opens his 17th album, the first release from Damien’s own Maraqopa Records. Dire circumstances have long been fixtures of Jurado’s songs, which are filled with ghosts, killers, cruel lovers, and the occasional UFO cult or false messiah. But here, the scenes are earthy, drawn from ordinary but no less immense calamities: hurricanes moving toward town, strained connections, amnesiacs in the front yard. On The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania, Jurado pulls the curtains shut, blocking out “the light now embarrassed and afraid of the dark,” as he sings on “Tom,” one of the album’s haunting numbers, only to throw them open the exact moment sunshine needs to come flooding in.
Jurado has certainly made sparser records than The Monster, but sonically it is among his most exposed, stripping away the cosmic gloss that defined his trio of albums with the late Richard Swift in favor of dry, homespun ambiance. “In a lot of ways, it’s a continuation of the work I did with Swift,” Jurado says. Had the producer not passed away in 2018—he’s been memorialized in a number of Damien’s recent songs—it’s likely the duo would have found themselves drawn in this direction too, Damien suspects, noting that the addition by subtraction approach imbued the new album with a certain quality of “emptiness,” creating the feel of a sort of spiritual karaoke track, tailor made for personal projection. “I wanted to leave space for the listener,” Jurado says.
Known for working fast—he’s usually got a handful of finished albums at the ready at any given time—the compositions here are uncluttered, but not slight, decorated by Beatles-esque bass-lines, drums, and strings. Inspired by the sound of records like Lou Reed’s The Bells and Paul McCartney’s Ram, Jurado produced the new album himself, employing “a certain dryness,” which allowed the songs to feel cavernous, even “after spending so long in reverb land,” Jurado laughs.
Jurado’s discography is full of detours—from answering machine collages to full-on electric rock band outings—but there’s a through line connecting it all, evidence of an almost oracular or prophetic unease that lurks in Jurado’s headspace. Listening to The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania, you can still hear that young man living within these songs, speaking as if from the other side, about the circumstances that crush people or leave them vexed. “The loneliest place I’ve ever been is in your arms,” he sings on the ghostly, Jason Molina-evoking “Male Customer #1”; “I hadn’t been in a car yet/Hearing the world through your eyes,” he sings on the quixotic “Jennifer.”
On the album’s most harrowing and gripping song “Johnny Caravella,” he dreams up an epic of American strangeness in the vein of Springsteen’s “State Trooper” or Suicide’s “Frankie Teardrop.” His voice cracking over a distorted maw of guitars, Jurado narrates a frantic drive west, tuned into the sound of prophecy coming over the radio: “All is not lost/Even if you’re without a direction.” “Just stick around till the light pushes into the darkness,” Damien promises – or admits – at the burned-out husk of the song’s conclusion. Jurado’s best songs have long concerned inevitabilities. On The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania, he offers up his own Twilight Zone, “a middle ground between light and shadow”…a dimension of imagination, of half-remembered dreams and people reaching out to cross into that liminal space between heartbreak and wholeness. Jurado knows the territory well. He knows the secret words to whisper at the right time. Press your eye to the speaker, tune your ear to the horizon.
-Jason P. Woodbury
Nick Delffs grew up in Mendocino County, a lawless stretch of coastline that’s hard to get to and, for many, hard to escape. Nick did — emerging in the early aughts as the frontman for Portland band The Shaky Hands, whose sharp, jittery rock was anchored by Nick’s quavering vocals and questing lyrics. The Shaky Hands were mainstays of Portland on the verge of a major shift, and they rode that shift a while, signing to Kill Rock Stars and touring internationally with some of the bigger names in indie rock. But a hiatus in 2011 became indefinite and Nick Delffs was once again cast into the world: working as a sideman, releasing solo records, doing manual labor, going deeper into his spiritual practices, and, crucially, becoming a father.
Becoming a parent can affect different artists in different ways. Nick rode that change with surpassing grace and maturity. 2017’s Redesign, his first full-length under his own name, reflected the transition. In “Song for Aja”, Nick touched on other concerns familiar to those who follow his work: love of the natural world; longing for spiritual and physical connection; the desire to suffer with meaning and exult with abandon, to embrace somehow the world in its maddening contradictions and find the unity at the core.
Childhood Pastimes, his second release on Mama Bird Recording Co., is both more focused and, despite being technically an EP, more ambitious. It’s a four-song cycle — one song with many movements or four songs that bleed into one another, depending on how you hear it — that can be viewed either as a personal journey or an archetypal passage of a human being through four discrete stages: roughly, the movement from childhood innocence into adolescent adventure (The Escape); the sudden immersion into a life of discovery and excitement (The Dream); the first experience of romantic love, followed by the onset of heartbreak, dissolution, breakdown of self (The Affair); the emergence into a new way of thinking, a fresh perspective that encompasses all the suffering and joy into a balanced whole (The Outside).
Nick plays nearly all of the instruments here and the result is a unified aesthetic, born ultimately of his deep-seated love of rhythm: the thrum and throb of the acoustic guitars, the percussive melodic bang of the elegantly-crafted piano lines, and always, always the insistent, driving drums, propelling the record, and the listener, on this journey as the four tracks bleed into one another, one body, one blood, one beating heart. The concept of four songs that are really one suite of music requires a sure hand, and Nick’s never shakes: the way the songs blend together while retaining their distinctiveness — from the poppy exaltation of “The Escape” to the cold intensity, almost like an acoustic Kraftwerk, of “The Affair” — shows a songwriter and musician who has fully grown into his powers.
Those who have followed Nick’s career may see this as a culmination of years and years of honing and fine-tuning his bountiful gifts, and wonder with delight what might come next. For those who haven’t listened to Nick before, Childhood Pastimes is the perfect entry point, a distillation of what’s come before and the promise of a new beginning.