The Monster Who Hated Pennsylvania, the 17th album for singer/songwriter Damien Jurado and first for his own label Maraqopa Records, is an intimate affair, ten songs that capture the characters in a decisive moment in time. The brief album notes suggest it’s the “middle ground between light and shadow,” and the stripped back acoustic folk singer settings, with tasty contributions from multi-instrumentalist Josh Gordon, who plays drums, keys, vibes, and mellotron with such gentle, unintrusive touch, you mostly feel like you’re just listening to the songwriter as his stories unwind slowly, the moment hanging on each word as it’s sung.
Light or the absence there of defines the imagined outcomes, as Jurado’s songs describe people confronting their life situation free from the comfort of illusions. “The world is liar/The stars are a must,” he suggests in the opener “Helena,” a quiet testimonial, while the album’s one loud, feedback-driven query, “Johnny Caravella,” suggests that “all is not lost even if you’re without a direction,” but you’ll need to “just stick around till the light pushes into the darkness.” And while the pretty melody of “Song for Langston Birch” suggests there’s light and love, even if “it is only for you I can shine,” before concluding that apart from the light you give, “I would rather just die and go on.” “The loneliest place I’ve ever been is in your arms,” he sings in “Male Customer #1,” another in a series of quiet reflective pieces here that suggest a life in need of light.
This album invites your thoughtful attention, each song a portrait of a life lingering in a moment, perhaps hopeful of connection but seemingly unlikely to experience resolution. In many ways, it’s the listener who gets to decide whether the faded light is the end, or if holds promise of a new beginning, a dawning new day. Either way, the songs capture an essential experience of reality in a way that only strong songwriting can. Once again, Jurado is the human voice at the heart of “Dawn Pretend,” who’s pretty sure “life is brighter now you’re blue.”
Key Tracks: “Tom” / “Song For Langston Birch” / “Male Customer #1”
Artists With Similar Fire: David Bazan / Richard Buckner / The Mountain Goats
-Reviewed by Brian Q Newcomb