The Horizon Just Laughed is yet another well-crafted addition to Jurado’s wide-ranging discography.
Over the last 20 years, Damien Jurado has always added a literary flourish to his taciturn and psyched-out folk. From his 1997 debut Waters Ave S. to his latest Maraqopa trilogy, Jurado’s lyrical eye gravitates toward people and places, opting for character sketches with local detail. In fact, his catalogue reads like a folkloric collage of misfits and runaways, as he fills his musical worlds with lonely people in small town bus stops, gas stations and diners. His sketches even stretch from the autobiographical to the fantastic, such as the utopian characters Silver Timothy and Silver Donna from 2014’s Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Sun.
Jurado’s newest album and the first one he entirely self-produced continues this thread, whisking through a collection of postcard-like songs from and about places like Wenatchee, Mount Rainer, Oklahoma and Texas. Written in epistolary form, Jurado’s songs are addressed to a wide cast of cultural figures such as the author Thomas Wolfe, the actor Marvin Kaplan and the composer and bandleader Percy Faith. Musically, The Horizon Just Laughed is more restrained than the Maraqopa trilogy, relying mostly on Jurado’s pained vocals, brambly guitar and sophisticated string arrangements, but its eye for detail is no less affecting. Altogether, The Horizon Just Laughed is an exquisite time capsule of an album, seamlessly blending Jurado’s narrative acumen and his compositional skill.
Album opener and single “Allocate” immediately places the listener in Jurado’s sonic world of runaways. Over contemplative strings, a misty organ and a nimble bass, Jurado plucks at his guitar and croons, “Don’t give up on me if I ever leave town/ Ain’t it sad to see your life not work out?” establishing the world-weary sensibility that permeates the album. Jurado skips town in the following song, “Dear Thomas Wolfe,” a Van Morrison-meets-hotel lounge slow jam. “It’s off to Nebraska/ It’s off to Maine,” Jurado sings, “with only 10 dollars to [his] name.”
From there, Jurado continues balancing storytelling with his evocative sensibility, addressing verse-letters to a diverse cast of recipients, as he desperately seeks comfort within these distant connections. The jaunty organ-heavy “Percy Faith” is a particular tour-de-force on this front, as Jurado seeks out Joseph Raymond Coniff, Bill Close, Allan Sherman and two women named Alice and Loretta, not to mention the song’s titular character. Jurado positions himself as “writing from the future” where he “know[s] everything and yet no one at all.” His letter writing isn’t merely geographically distant; rather, he’s temporally and emotionally distant as well, which cultivates a tangible feeling of alienation that is buoyed by the song’s musical urgency. In other words, his epistolary framing serves as a foundation for a simultaneously cultural and personal memory, as well as a hoped-for salve for his isolation. Its string arrangements and Jurado’s lilting falsetto enhance the effect.
After a few haunting ballads (“Over Rainbows and Rainer” and “1973,” which features the marvelous line “Somebody shouted your name/ And I swear they yelled fire”), the album settles into the soft bossa nova of “Marvin Kaplan.” The song takes its name from an actor who appeared on the television show Alice, a character who also features prominently on the album. The narrative seems to shift viewpoints from Jurado’s own life to Kaplan’s character on the show—Henry Beesmeyer, a telephone lineman: “One day I will become your phone call.” Yet, Jurado overlays Beesmeyer onto his own wearied journey, as he yearns for “Someone to notice me,” as he has throughout the album.
Although the album’s final three songs do not offer a resolution to Jurado’s journey for connection, they do suggest a cautious optimism in the face of alienation. In “Lou-Jean,” for example, Jurado realizes that he was “Searching for peace/ That was mine all along,” as he navigates the parking lots and diners of Texas. Similarly named “Florence-Jean” strikes a slight sonic resemblance with the Maraqopa trilogy, moving with a bouncing strut and swaggering horns. Here, Jurado seems to rejoice, if pensively, in his own sincerity. “I had a way to express myself/ I had a way to be honest,” he belts in the chorus. “Random Fearless” rounds out Jurado’s journey on The Horizon Just Laughed and climaxes with Jurado’s powerful wails, the first time he pushes his voice to the edge. It’s a fitting conclusion to an album that before had favored the introspective—the accumulation of his sonic travels finally unleashing in one emotive moment.
Altogether, The Horizon Just Laughed is yet another well-crafted addition to Jurado’s wide-ranging discography, not to mention a testament to his under-recognized songwriting abilities. While it may not have the musical glitz of the Maraqopa trilogy, its sophisticated instrumentation and its ruminations on people and places combine to form an utterly poignant portrait of the travails of isolation and connection. It might be Jurado at his most in control of his storytelling craft.