The Damien Jurado canon is a deep well, but a couple of decades and nearly 20 albums into his career, treasures still emerge from it. The latest one from the prolific artist is also the first on his own label, Maraqopa Records. The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania listens like a book of short, character-driven stories about the absolute strangeness of the human experience. While it is one of the more barebones entries in Jurado’s collection, The Monster is filled with lush melodies and multidimensional, if clean, arrangements from Josh Gordon of guitar, bass, keys, and drums, with the occasional strings. It doesn’t reach the sonic heights of Jurado’s work with the late Richard Swift, but it doesn’t intend to. The candlelit stories and the people who populate them, with all their intricacies, are the focal point here.
Jurado’s soft, scratchy vocal tone is the ideal companion to his acoustic guitar, particularly in the solemn tune “Minnesota,” making a plea to remain close to someone now gone. “Don’t go,” he sings, hushed. “Keep me not far from your song.” The eerie “Johnny Caravella” follows a narrator on a long, tortured drive as the guitars build and thrash to consume the song in one intense gulp. Memories haunt the melancholic, almost hymnal “Jennifer,” and anxiety about the inhospitable world outside creeps into one of the album’s lone up-tempo tunes, “Tom.” A similarly airy number, “Helena,” confronts the lie of invincibility and the reality that we’re all just regular. And the sparkling “Dawn Pretend,” an ode to leaving, is as close as Jurado gets to a groove on The Monster.
Some songs feel more like snapshots that leave us wishing there were more to the story. “Joan” is a quick note to a lover proposing to keep moving forward, but we never hear the response, leaving it up to our imagination. And that is the beauty of a Jurado song: The way it, in his words, leaves “space for the listener.” We can put however much of ourselves into these stories, or we can let them float above, just out of reach, like the little parts of dreams we can still recall.