Over the course of his last 14 studio albums – or 17, depending on how you’re counting them – Damien Jurado has carved himself a cosy and respected niche within the crowded Pacific Northwest indie scene. Lately, Jurado has stripped back the ambitious production and lofty concepts which defined releases such as Visions of Us on the Land and Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son in favour of the more reserved and sparse timbres of The Horizon Just Laughed and last year’s In the Shape of the Storm. What’s New Tomboy?, his third full-length album in as many years, whilst definitely continuing down this path, has more flesh on its bones than its predecessors. Tones feel richer and more textured as Jurado incorporates the scattered, muted acoustics of his last two releases with the thumbing bass guitar lines, upbeat drums and occasional electronics of earlier works. What’s New, Tomboy? is the sound of Jurado reclaiming his voice.
In an artist as prolific as Jurado, self-interrogation, of the sort which underpinned the broken-heart balladry of his most recent output, can sometimes reek of self-indulgence. Visions of the Land and Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son were indulgent in a whole different way, finding Jurado singing, not of doomed dalliances, but aliens and the cosmos. Mind you, the veteran folk-rock troubadour has proved himself remarkably consistent considering his exceptionally prolific output, so a little self-indulgence can more than be excused. Jurado marries his penchant for intimacy and conceptual experimentation exceedingly well on What’s New, Tomboy?, with the stripped-back aesthetic feeling far more sincere and the vintage production feeling far more organic.
This rings no more true than with album opener and lead single Birds Tricked Into the Trees. The rolling bass line and upbeat kick drum recall the bouncier end of earlier works such as Rehearsal for Departure and Ghost of David whilst retaining the searing introspective honesty for which he has recently become celebrated. The subtle electronics on When You Were Few similarly bolster Jurado’s introspection as he astutely ponders the implications of wiping the slate clean.
Tracks such as Ochoa and Sandra, in comparison, feel like a step backwards, being closer in style to the aforementioned broken-hearted balladry which arguably constrained his last two releases. Maudlin lines like “I walk you to forever” and cynical declarations such as “not that you deserve to know my plans” and “I’ll be gone before you notice” feel beneath Jurado and his potent songwriting abilities.
What’s New, Tomboy?, though somewhat of a mixed bag, is undoubtedly impressive. It feels like what In the Shape of the Storm should have been: shrewd and intimate in its execution whilst retaining the lyrical and conceptual ambition which said release was lacking. It’s not Jurado’s best release by any means but, that being said, there’s a whole lot to love here – a refreshing and impressive entry into his discography.