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Damien Jurado - What’s New, Tomboy? Music Album Reviews

Channeling stripped-back pop songs into hushed folk arrangements, the Seattle singer-songwriter’s 15th album confronts life’s impermanence in terms tender yet unsentimental.

On his 15th album, Damien Jurado confronts impermanence with arresting frankness. Across What’s New, Tomboy?’s 10 songs, a close friend perishes onstage, a plane smashes into the side of a mountain, and a long sought-after romance promises a dark comfort: someone to die with. Jurado may examine the unpleasant, but his observations are aren’t needlessly morbid or cynical, nor tortured or overwrought. Instead, Jurado allows these reflections to drift by like a steady current, never lingering long enough to invite undue scrutiny. In this 30-minute collection of vivid impressions, Jurado positions his voice at the front of the mix, braced by subtle and warm folk arrangements. His words are still just above a whisper, but they’re impactful as ever.
What’s New, Tomboy? is, unsurprisingly, a quiet album, but it is noticeably less quiet than its predecessor, 2019’s In the Shape of a Storm, which also featured 10 brief entries. But while those songs were built entirely around acoustic guitar and Jurado’s tempered chest voice, What’s New, Tomboy? features an expanded palette courtesy of multi-instrumentalist Josh Gordon. Gordon was present on In the Shape of a Storm (playing high-strung guitar), but here he lays down bass, electric guitar, drums, Hammond organ, Rhodes, and more. Jurado extends himself as well, adding Mellotron and percussion to his usual repertoire. The effect is hushed but rich, and Gordon’s presence adds levity to Jurado’s melodies: His guitar licks on “Arthur Aware” and opener “Birds Tricked Into the Trees” twinkle as they refract off Jurado’s dusky voice.
Gordon might be the reason that What’s New, Tomboy? at times sounds like a stripped-back pop record. Jurado recently admitted to Aquarium Drunkard that in the past year he’s become a first-time Beatles fan (“at 47 years old!”), suggesting that this may have partly influenced the simple structure of these new songs; there’s also a McCartneyesque feel to Gordon’s basslines. But despite What’s New, Tomboy?’s enlivened arrangements, the most interesting element is his lyrics, packed with fragments of daily life and ruminations on death. Mid-album ballad “Fool Maria” relays a series of contradictory images, at first lovely and then tragic. He likens a woman’s eyelids to a closing curtain “that lets you know it’s over.” “We are fiction as it’s written/The bleeding ink on paper,” Jurado sings, accenting his words with fingerpicked guitar. “Quiet as an aeroplane/Before it hits the mountain.” It’s like Jurado has baked a fish into a birthday cake—you eat a forkful of something sweet only to bite into a pungent and unpleasant surprise.

Jurado doesn’t have a regimented writing schedule; his songs show up when he’s occupied with other things, whether that’s laundry, television, or even sleep. Avoiding the process is the process, and it’s likely the reason his lyrics sound so inspired and original. On the driving “Arthur Aware,” banshee-like backing vocals swirl around the dark fable, and a character named Mr. Will shares a cryptic secret: “I keep all of my prized reflections/In glass jars from the coroner,” he says. “And when I get bored of looking at myself/I trade the gray for the shade of someone else.” Singular passages like this are marbled throughout the album, and they don’t sound like belabored phrases that have been erased and rewritten a thousand times. Instead, they seem to have appeared to Jurado fully formed while he was walking through the grocery store—slippery thoughts that will dissolve if not documented immediately.

If Jurado’s ideas are fleeting and intangible, that might be because he thinks life is, too. On “Ochoa,” Jurado sings to his late friend and longtime collaborator Richard Swift, who died in 2018 of complications from alcohol addiction. “Absence tunes the choir/Symphonies of you,” Jurado sings, again disrupting a serene image with a death knell: “You turn to sing, you’re gone/The show must go on.” But Jurado is quick to comfort his lost friend with the knowledge that he won’t be long behind. This sentiment is reinforced on “The End of the Road,” perhaps the album’s best song. Here death is lassoed to devotion. Gordon’s walking, bulbous bassline guides Jurado and his partner down a winding one-way street. We all know what’s at the end of it, but Jurado makes time to take in the bewildering scenery along the way.
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