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The Mountain Goats - In League With Dragons Music Album Reviews

John Darnielle explores the humanity of wizards, sports legends, Ozzy Osbourne, and other folk heroes and beacons of hope.
“Old wizards and old athletes are the same,” John Darnielle said during a Facebook live stream at the headquarters of Wizards of the Coast, the game company that owns Magic: The Gathering and Dungeons & Dragons. He was there to announce the latest record from the Mountain Goats, In League With Dragons, and his rhetoric was appropriately fanciful: “They were once magic,” he offered by way of explanation.

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Damien Jurado - The Horizon Just Laughed Music Album Reviews

Damien Jurado - The Horizon Just Laughed Music Album Reviews
Two decades into his career, these songs are among the most incisive but somehow most complex ones Jurado has ever written, lined up from end to end without a wasted note, layer, line, or word.

During the past two decades, the singer-songwriter Damien Jurado has been tortuously restless. He first emerged in the late ’90s as a sensitive troubadour sort, sharing a curious traveler’s clutch of geographical ruminations and missed-connection laments with a confidant’s alluring wisp. Jurado was good enough to maintain the balladeer guise in perpetuity, but he pushed against the role’s tight fit almost immediately with an album of agitated indie rock, another of homespun experimental folk, and even a collage made from voice memos salvaged at garage sales. In 2010, Jurado finally seemed to have found his match in fellow singer and idiosyncratic soul Richard Swift, who framed Jurado’s endearing voice and emotional abstruseness in shades of neon and pastel on four sporadically stunning albums. Jurado, in turn, distanced himself from those early works: “My records,” he confessed, “all sounded like me trying to be everybody else.”

Jurado, it seems, has now disavowed those albums with Swift, too. For the wondrous new The Horizon Just Laughed, Jurado elected to produce the music himself for the first time in years, settling into a California studio with a modest band. The results are spellbinding: These eleven songs are among the most incisive but somehow most complex ones Jurado has ever written, lined up from end to end without a wasted note, layer, line, or word. And after his stint with Swift, Jurado has allowed himself the latitude to be both a simple singer and sophisticated stylist. Yes, there are devastating acoustic confessions and breezy folk-pop tunes, but there’s also a hypnotic samba meditation, a twilit tone poem, and a surging finale of organ-loaded rock’n’roll. For his entire career, Jurado has built good records from the bones of two or three staggering songs at a time, be they the early, acoustic “Ohio” or the later, lysergic “Museum of Flight.” The Horizon Just Laughed—Jurado’s best record to date and a magnetic middle-aged reflection on a lifetime of basic but profound changes in the world—funnels a quarter-century of trial-and-error into thirty-seven minutes of triumph.

The Horizon Just Laughed is an intricate personal diorama, teeming with characters and scenery culled from stacks of diaries and snapshots. Jurado takes us high into Wenatchee, that splendid forest impasse that divides Seattle from much of Washington, and down to Midwestern plains and South Texas towns, where “the skies are a firework show … the stars are a stanza.” He visits airports and train stations, marvels at the majesty of Mount Rainier, and considers the conditions of Brooklyn.

Some figures are anonymous—“Q,” who sits in the back of a cab during opener “Allocate,” or the outwardly tough and inwardly tortured man stalking the streets during the closer “Random Fearless.” Others are obscure, like the dual bit players from the ’70s sitcom “Alice” (and its sequel, “Flo”) who get their own song titles or the man who invented the stoplight’s yellow warning signal and prompts the record’s best joke—“Mr. Garrett Morgan, I’m always stop and go.” Still others are celebrities or celestial beings, recast in unusual roles. Peanuts creator Charles Schultz and his tragicomic star, Charlie Brown, are the stars of a tender suicide note, written by a man ultimately broken by his lack of breaks. Moroni—the angel who led Joseph Smith to the source material for The Book of Mormon and who you now see cast in gold atop Mormon temples—becomes Jurado’s companion for the apocalypse, which arrives here in nested waves of remorse and hope. You get the sense that these songs are stitched together from thoughts and feelings Jurado has jotted onto bits of paper or in text messages to himself, a patchwork testament to existence.

These specific references will likely mean very little to most listeners, but their power stems from Jurado’s ability to work through them in search for insight about himself and the world. These revelations sporadically appear, pulling what may have seemed like a haze of arbitrary events and ideas into a sudden bolt of focus. “Percy Faith,” for instance, strings together stanzas addressed to an assortment of ’60s easy-listening bandleaders and comedians, revealing vague discomfort with society. In the last verse, though, Jurado stares at people staring at their cell phones as they ride moving walkways and talk to their watches. “I know everything and yet no one at all,” he concludes, singing as if with a sad smile. After all these years, he’s simply more in search of connections than he’s ever been.

“The Last Great Washington State” beautifully drifts through discursive meditations on our cult of celebrity death and our impulse to search for the greener grass. But it crystalizes in an instant: “What good is living if you can’t write your ending?” Jurado sings, his pace quickening, as if he needs to say this aloud before he forgets it. “You’re always in doubt of the truths you’re defending.” The Horizon Just Laughed is an indispensable depository of perfect lines like this, keepsakes you can clutch closely when the world is set against you: “I can only exist so long as you last,” “Jealous is the dark that keeps me from you,” and the album’s wrecking ball, “Somebody shouted your name/And I swear they yelled fire.”

Considering how stuffed these songs are with Jurado’s peculiar interests and personal reckonings, his choice to produce The Horizon Just Laughed himself doesn’t seem like much of a choice at all; there’s simply too much to cover, too much baggage for anyone else to squeeze into any four-minute frame. How can you explain to someone in advance, after all, that the most important musical element of the exquisitely rendered “Over Rainbows and Rainier” won’t be the choirs, strings, or horns? Instead, it will be a moment of near-complete silence three minutes into the song, when we hear Jurado swallow hard before divulging his own vulnerability. It’s a striking moment most producers would have taken as a mistake. But here, the person who knows the most about what these songs are trying to say is the one deciding how to say it. He gets it right at every turn.

In March, when Jurado announced the May arrival of The Horizon Just Laughed, he declared that the album wouldn’t appear on digital platforms until July, two months after its release. He wanted to “foster opportunities for people to hear it in a way that it was created to be heard, from front to back in its entirety.” The patience, he hoped, might prompt them to listen a bit more closely.

At first blush, that’s too bad; more than any album Jurado’s ever made, these songs demand to be heard, and two months might as well be a year in an industry of instant streaming. On the other hand, these songs pull their power from slow reflections, from a series of sights that have been seen and pondered during long drives down open roads or quiet nights of deep thought. It took Jurado a quarter-century to make something this meaningful and half a lifetime to grasp and articulate these realizations. These truths—whose meaning becomes clear when you’re no longer listening, when one of these stunning lines creeps into your head during a nighttime walk—feel like his scripture. They aren’t going anywhere anytime soon.

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