Just a year after releasing his previous In the Shape of a Storm, Seattle’s unstoppable bard Damien Jurado is back with his 15th album What’s New, Tomboy?, which unsteadily walks the tightrope between artless simplicity and blandness.
With its gentle throatiness and reassuring ‘everything-will-be-ok-in-the-end’ quality, Jurado’s voice crackles with the same intimacy as ever. What’s different are the arrangements: mostly using the bare necessities of Jurado’s own guitar and collaborator Josh Gordon’s bass, their no-frills simplicity and bob-along poppiness are as easy to listen to as they are harmless. This is not an impressive album, but it seems that this is exactly what it’s going for. ‘I want to be at ease’ sings Jurado on Fool Maria and there is definitely a lack of pressure in all these songs, which could be the soundtrack to you having a cuppa outside your house door, repairing your bike, washing your car, doing weeding in the front garden. Jurado’s lyrics are intricate vignettes of people (e.g. Frankie, Sandra, Francine) and tales of friendship, hardship survived with others, loyalty, lessons learned that are hard to put into words. In many ways, it might be the appropriate album to listen to right now with self-isolation and home-working being the bases of our daily existence.
As he’s been continuously releasing albums since 1997, Jurado’s back-to-basics approach might feel appropriate. But the line of simplicity is a tricky one: while songs like Ochoa capture the brittle candour Jurado is so good at, others miss their footing and lack flavour or depth. Album opener Birds Tricked Into the Trees or Alice Hyatt move and end with a cosy, feeble trot without ever reaching a peak – which, again, might’ve been exactly what Jurado was after. It makes for a more forgettable set of songs, though. Considering that 2019’s In the Shape of a Storm has already been a compositionally stripped-down (and skilfully carried-out) experience for Jurado, What’s New, Tomboy?’s dilemma is that recreating that idea with a poppy add-on seems a bit like a weak effort. But while listening to this album, I also wondered about the pleasure of enjoying music that neither makes promises nor tries hard or looks for accolades – as Jurado sings, he’s just wants to be at ease. Get a cuppa, sit by your house door and give it a go.
What’s New, Tomboy? is out now on Loose.