For the last 25 years, we’ve come to find a blend of comfort and confusion in the beautiful music of Damien Jurado. Whether the work trends toward plaintive (as in 2019’s In The Shape of the Storm) or psychedelic (his triptych with Richard Swift), Jurado has a warm way with his listeners even if the sentiments come clouded in dense imagery or fantastical tales. Nearly every one of Jurado’s releases has felt familiar, even intimate, to date, and his latest, What’s New, Tomboy?, is no exception.
Even Tomboy‘s song’s titles are personal — “Sandra,” “Frankie,” “Francine” — rooting them before they’re heard. Yet to hold out for a narrative concerning any such protagonist is a futile exercise. Jurado’s never been concerned with getting someone’s point across, even his own. It’s almost as if Jurado’s craft is an exploratory journey meets extended invitation — a “you’re all welcome to come along” offered as the artist observes, wrestles, and reflects as he sees fit across a new set of songs.
Musically, What’s Up, Tomboy? invites a bit of the band back from last year’s minimal In the Shape of the Storm, most notably the bass work of Josh Gordon. “Birds Tricked into the Trees” ambles along like a Pete Yorn tune as Gordon’s bass and Jurado’s vocal command the ear. Jurado sings meaningful stanzas like “It’s about knowing where to say you’re wrong / To get it right all the time means it’s over,” yet taken as a whole, the package can read a bit nonsensical — an intentional smokescreen created to allow each listener to discern what they will.
Despite the indirect nature of Jurado’s wordplay, there’s little doubt on Tomboy‘s dominant themes of shedding skin and/or moving on. Each song feels like a reflection on the pains and joys of such transitions, even on a grander scale. “Here’s where it gets so confusing / We are all leaving,” he sings on “Birds Tricked into the Trees.” Elsewhere, on the lovely yet haunting “Arthur Aware,” he admits, “When I get bored of looking at myself / I trade the gray for the shade of someone else.”
The single “Alice Hyatt,” likely named after the titular character in Scorsese’s 1974 film Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, testifies to the pain of being transient. Jurado doesn’t make it clear who is responsible for saying the words, but the couplet is arresting all the same when he sings, “It’s not that I want you to leave / Sometimes it’s just so hard to be seen.” The movie itself is about a woman who leaves behind her grief for a better life, and it’s easy to picture these songs as an unofficial soundtrack for such moments.
By the time Jurado reaches the penultimate track, “End of the Road,” there’s a repeated refrain that feels like a sincere moment of self-discovery. “I need you,” sings Jurado, again and again, as the song nears its end. For a quarter century, Jurado’s fans have felt the same; that as we all explore, we’re grateful for an invitation into the process, even a cloudy one. We need each other, with Jurado’s music as our connection.