For singer-songwriter Damien Jurado, the unfrequented path has always come naturally. Twenty-five years into his career, the Seattle-based musician continues to create some of the most underappreciated, beautiful folk songs of the past two decades in a remarkably quiet fashion. Jurado’s music is a treasure trove of personal confessions and earnest melodies just waiting to be heard, deceptively simple yet deeply felt.
On his 15th studio album, What’s New, Tomboy?, Jurado returned with a collection of sparse, graceful folk songs, proving himself to be a master of the understated. A small-scale effort comprising 10 tracks which rarely exceed the three-minute mark, What’s New Tomboy? is a rewarding, albeit fleeting, listening experience, providing listeners the chance to curiously wander through Jurado’s memories.
Following the style of his 2019 album, In the Shape of the Storm, which was entirely stripped to vocals and acoustic guitar with traces of drums, Jurado’s new album is subtle and restrained, a truly minimalist folk record bolstered by intimate songwriting and spacious arrangements. In a press release, Jurado explained his creative process for the album: “I left out certain instruments on purpose, so you’re making space for the listener to fill in their own melodies and parts.”
What’s New, Tomboy? is full of Jurado’s most confident songwriting to date. Album opener, “Birds Tricked Into Trees,” reinvigorates a familiar and inviting melody with strange charm. Over a combination of drums, jangly guitar and light organs, Jurado warmly sings, “It’s all about knowing when to say you’re wrong/ To get it right all the time/ Means it’s over.” Jurado’s lyrics are centered on embracing earthly imperfections, imbuing the track with unexpected grace. With the lyrics, “This wasn’t part of the plan/ A major flaw in the design,” you can almost picture him with a smile. The song is an effective entry point into the album, priming listeners for their own personal experiences to meld together with Jurado’s vignettes.
The album revels in its keen sense of observation and exploration. Some songs result in revelation, others in uncertainty. On the track, “Arthur Aware,” Jurado’s imperfect vocal delivery shines through the mix unashamedly, unafraid of the conclusions he may or may not reach. “I keep all of my past reflections in glass jars from the corridor/ And when I get bored of looking at myself/ I trade the grey for the shade of someone else,” he admits in one of the song’s most poetic lines. The beautiful track, “When You Were Few,” written in the midst of Jurado clearing out most of his possessions, is a gentle psych-rock track which captures a state of reinvention. Jurado described the experience behind the song as almost otherworldly, stating, “It was as if I had died, even though I was still living.” The song appropriately feels like a walk in limbo with a playful bass and whirring drone of keys.
What’s New, Tomboy? is an album about people entering and leaving our lives. Many of the songs are named after people from Jurado’s life. The album’s standout track, “Ochoa,” is a tender tribute to the late Richard Swift, one of Jurado’s most prevalent collaborators and friends. With just an acoustic guitar and his vocals front and center, Jurado captures an unparalleled feeling of longing. In the lyrics, “I’ll walk you till forever/ And where you go/ Far from me but not for long,” he tenderly sings at the song’s delicate chorus. Jurado’s ruminations on grief, love and existence coalesce on the album’s penultimate track, “The End of the Road.” His solace and comfort shine through as he sings, “And now that I’ve found you/ My running is over.”
The album’s cover art — a photo of a dimly lit porch in the dead of night — perfectly evokes the essence of Jurado’s songs, warmly inviting listeners into a rich world full of heart amid the empty space. What’s New, Tomboy? is an affecting listen that goes toe-to-toe with the best music of today, a remarkable album that highlights the beauty of simplicity and that which lies in plain sight.