Last year's I Break Chairs, billed as "Damien Jurado and Gathered in Song" to underscore the material's full-band, garage-pop intentions, wasn't so much uncharacteristic as a timely tangent for local songsmith Jurado, who quipped in interviews that it was his grab for a larger audience, his "sellout" rock record. On his fifth album, Where Shall You Take Me? (Secretly Canadian), however, Jurado reverts for the most part to the subdued, contemplative, and frequently downcast sound that earned him such jolly media-contrived sobriquets as "morose eloquence," "morbid the merrier," and "contender for pop's saddest singer-songwriter award." Yours truly also chided him in print for possibly looking to his Nick Drake albums for inspiration one too many times as well as playing enabler, in interviews, to the angle-hungry members of the press corps. In retrospect, however, maybe Jurado was just growing up in public as he sought his own voice.
DAMIEN JURADO ROSIE THOMAS, GUESTS Graceland, 206-381-3094, $8 9 p.m. Sat., March 8
He found it. Backed by his Gathered in Song compadres (bassist Josh Golden, drummer Andy Myers, and guitarist/keyboardist Eric Fisher) but stripping things back sonically and arrangementwise save the anthemic, new wave-sounding "Texas to Ohio"Jurado confidently carves out 10 picturesque and utterly memorable vignettes.
His opening gambit is impressive enough: "Amateur Night," about a nudie-snapping shutterbug who slits the throat of a $20-an-hour hooker, starts out matter-of-factly and acoustically, only to swell in texture and volume, via an ominous keyboard drone, to mirror the escalating tension between the characters. Elsewhere, the plaintive piano pop of "Abilene" finds Jurado swooping into a Neil Young-ish upper register, as an antebellum tale of obsession over "a girl of 19, a black-haired girl I call Abilene" unfolds in sparse but nuanced detail. "Window" is another courtship tune, an old-time country-gospel duet with a traditional we'll-meet-in-heaven lyric resolution that finds Jurado joined by Rosie Thomas and warbling like the third Louvin Brother. And "Intoxicated Hands" is downright astonishing: Borrowing melodically from Leon Russell's "This Masquerade" and draping nocturnal piano over bedsprings of electric guitar and heartbeat bass, it's a vocal tour de force for Jurado, who ponders booze-fueled revelations with such grim resolve as to suggest a young Sinatra alone at 4 a.m. with naught but a bottle and his tortured conscience for company.
Damien Jurado didn't necessarily set out to paint his masterpiece. It found him, sitting quietly at the kitchen table, sipping his morning coffee, scratching on his notepad. But there's no other word that better describes this giant artistic leapmasterpiece.