On "Lincoln," the opening track of his new record, In the Shape of a Storm, Damien Jurado hauntingly sings, "There is nothing left to hide." The declaration could serve as a mission statement of sorts for the beautifully stark and minimalistic record that finds the Seattle-born songwriter performing all 10 songs on acoustic guitar, accompanied occasionally on guitar by Josh Gordon. Fans and collaborators who have clamored for years for an acoustic Jurado record now have reason to rejoice—he dazzles throughout the sparse work.
Out April 12 on Portland's Mama Bird Recording Co. label, In the Shape of a Storm is a collection of spectral songs that commands your attention with an eerie beauty that calls to mind a fog-filled field in the fleeting moments before sunrise. Some of the songs, like "Lincoln" and "Newspaper Gown," have lived as phantasmic parts of the ever-expanding Jurado catalog he has played live but never committed to wax. Others, like "Where You Want Me to Be," seem destined to become immediate favorites. In the Shape of a Storm has a haunted feeling that's hard to shake, but it's also a charming, warm record. The ghosts that haunt the songs are by and large benevolent ones, and the record feels vulnerable as a result.
Rather amazingly, the album was recorded in about two hours in a Southern California studio. Speaking on the phone from his new home in Los Angeles, Jurado says although the record represents a bit of a departure for him, it came about the way all of his work does: by patiently waiting for the songs to reveal themselves and trusting his instincts. "If I feel moved to pick the guitar suddenly, I'll pick it up and see what happens," he says. "If the spirit or whatever you want to call it has something to say, then I'm open to it and I listen. It's as though the songs already exist out there, I just have to what for them to reveal themselves to me. It's almost like the songs are ghosts."
One of the specters haunting In the Shape of a Storm is that of the dearly departed architect of many of the best indie-rock records of the past decade, Richard Swift, who died last year at age 41 from complications of alcoholism. Swift was an essential part of records and tours by the likes of the Shins and the Black Keys, but it was his work with Jurado that perhaps shines brightest. As Jurado recounts opportunities lost—he and Swift had plans for a second Other People's Songs covers record and had begun compiling a list of songs—his voice becomes shaded by the sadness brought on by losing a friend. "I think about him every day," Jurado says. "That's not an exaggeration—every day. He had a real insight into things and was truly, truly unique. He just thought anything conventional was dumb, which I greatly admired. I honestly don't know where I'd be if I'd never met him. He taught me so much."
As much as Swift and his premature death inform In the Shape of a Storm, the record is not a depressing one. The intimate songs are hopeful and romantic, filled with an almost zen-like knowledge of the futility of fighting life's various tragedies. "If I go sailing into the unknown/What are the chances I ever find your shore?/If I go sailing into the unknown/Into the deep I am thrown," Jurado sings with a mystic's calm on the goose bump-inducing title track.
Jurado says Swift was among the many people who encouraged him to cut an acoustic record. That Swift didn't live long enough to see its creation is sad. But Jurado imbued In the Shape of a Storm with Swift's individualistic spirit, and this summer, will host an all-star tribute to Swift at Pickathon in Happy Valley. Jurado says Swift loved the music festival, and it's the perfect place to honor the late musician.
"The best way to honor him is to continue on that path, that unique way he did it," Jurado says. "To live with that spirit and to trust the art, because the art knows before you do."