It was a shock to see Damien Jurado take the stage at the Neptune Theatre Friday night clad entirely in white. Usually dressed dark and down, the brilliant Seattle songwriter strode onto the stage trailing his two bandmates and a choir of eleven women, all wearing silver gowns. After fussing with his acoustic guitar and uttering apologies for the delay, he introduced his stagemates. “This is the Silver Sisters Choir,” he said, motioning to the eleven women behind him. “And these are my Silver Brothers,” he said, nodding his head toward drummer Brad Stemke and keyboardist Barry Uhl. Then a brief pause. “And I am their cult leader.”
Laughter followed, recognizing the absurdity of the claim. Despite the packed theater and the fervent following that Jurado has garnered after eleven full-length albums of his earnest, poetic and devastating folk songs, the understated, predominantly secular singer has always seemed a little uncomfortable embracing the idea that there is a Cult of Damien. Adding another layer to his joke was the fact that the latest of those eleven albums, the one we had gathered to celebrate, the one called Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, is a concept album about a fictional cult, the members of which share the Silver moniker. (Many of the songs on the album are named for these cult members: “Silver Timothy,” “Silver Donna,” “Silver Malcolm.”)
As Damien began playing the songs from his album, the spare band attempted to keep up with the expansive production on album as the choir served as a stand-in for the album’s overdubbed vocals. The tone of the songs changed, stripping away some of the haunting effects that Jurado and his producer Richard Swift had created and replacing them with the tones of worship, which was fitting. As the religious allusions flowed from Jurado, the story—which I, admittedly, am still trying to decipher after numerous listens—unfolded. The songs were not sung in order, but a narrative could be loosely constructed. The story picks up where Jurado’s last album, Maraqopa, left off. Following an accident, the story’s hero returns to the town of Maraqopa and discovers the titular brothers and sisters, all of whom are waiting for the second coming of Jesus Christ. Is the hero, a stranger returned, The One? “I have nothing to give you,” Jurado sings on “Jericho Road.” Jurado’s sharp poetry on this song in particular recalled the religious allusions employed to great effect by Bob Dylan. The impact of Jurado’s story-songs is no less powerful.
Coming into Friday’s show I had considered Jurado’s latest to be akin to Dylan’s eighth album John Wesley Harding. On that album, Dylan employed the stories, characters, and language of the Old Testament to craft an allegory about life in post-World War II America. Similarly it seemed that Damien had adopted the language of the modern evangelical movement to craft an allegory about a more current climate, chiefly employing the anxiety and hope of a second coming to communicate something about this moment. Just like Dylan, Jurado was relying on the shared understanding of the Judeo Christian mythology that permeates American culture. As he sang of casting eyes to the skies, waiting on spaceships that would signal the return of Christ, on “Metallic Cloud,” he wasn’t really talking about the resurrection. Right?
This, I thought, was what made Jurado’s new album so remarkable. A singer known for plumbing the depths of his own personal struggles, frustrations and doubts presenting them with a fluid beauty and linguistic deftness that created connections through empathy, that singer had now moved entirely outside himself and created a work of fiction built upon one of the most well-known stories ever told. The songs crackle with this newness. It was as if Jurado had decided to stop being a mirror or a martyr, and instead grabbed his listener by the arm and entered a shared unknown. And it’s an album that asks questions. Why this story? To what end?
Partway through Friday’s concert, answers began to come.
After “Metallic Cloud,” Jurado broke from the Brothers and Sisters tracklist and played “Reel to Reel” off Maraqopa. “Reel to Reel,” in particular, is a world away from Brothers and Sister, lyrically. While Brothers and Sisters appears to be a fantasy—a purer vision of the dream upon which Jurado claims both Brothers and Sisters and Maraqopa were based—much of Maraqopa is still hanging on to Jurado’s more self-conscious past. There is perhaps no artist in indie rock who has sung more about what it means to be a working musician and “Reel to Reel” is no exception. “The greatest songs I’ll never hear from a band you started in your mind,” he sang. “Leave us hanging on your legend as you exit through the tape recorder.”
Immediately after that, Jurado played a song called “Plains to Crash” that I hadn't previously heard in its entirety. Featured on an album trailer for Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, it is a song that never made it onto that album and was, Jurado told the audience, written after the album was finished. He had recorded the song, available as one of a number of bonus tracks on iTunes, with the Silver Sisters Choir at Fremont Abbey late last year. In melody, the song recalled the opening phrases of Neil Young’s “Down By the River,” but in lyric it is something else. On the trailer, these words are apparent: “Help me lord to see the road ahead of me, may you always be the light beneath my feet, show me the way, show me the way, show me the way …” On Friday night, more lyrics were added. “Gave myself over to the light,” he sang. “Born twice, born twice.”
This apparent paean to being born again flipped a switch. Suddenly the room was cast in a very different light. I began to suspect that Brothers and Sisters was not Jurado’s John Wesley Harding. Rather, it might be his Slow Train Coming, Bob Dylan’s 1979 gospel album that provided us with the powerful, and pious, “You’ve Gotta Serve Somebody,” and that served as a notice of the singer’s recent conversion to Christianity.
In the interviews with Jurado that I had read and heard over the past few months, a new-found religious enthusiasm was never mentioned. But at the Neptune, with Jurado dressed in white, backed by a choir, singing about being “born twice,” it became more and more difficult to entertain the idea that Jurado’s new turn is allegorical. I wondered.
Then, near the end of the regular 16-song set, Jurado introduced another song I hadn’t heard, another that appears only as a bonus track, “All for You.” Somewhat meekly he said, “This is … this is a worship song.” And that is exactly what it was. “Heaven it seems, and angels applaud, all for you,” he sang as the choir applied golden highlights. It was beautiful. I was stunned. Maybe I shouldn’t have been, since Jurado has played the song before. Last spring, performing at a church in Tacoma, he introduced it like this: “It’s cool to be playing in a church, for me anyways. It’s been an interesting year, 2012 was an interesting year for me. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail about that, but it was an interesting year is all I’m going to say. I miss it and I’m also glad it’s over at the same time. Anyways, I like being in churches; they’re really nice. So this next song ... this song's about God.”
As Jurado finished the song at the Neptune, the crowd didn’t seem much to mind. They remained elated and mostly attentive throughout the rest of the set and on through the encore.
For the final song of the encore, Jurado, alone on stage, unplugged his guitar, stepped in front of his mic and filled the silent room with his guitar and his voice as he sang “Working Titles,” another song from Maraqopa. “Working Titles” had been requested at least seven times throughout the night from shouting fans. Like “Reel to Reel” it is a song that is based on Jurado’s life, a story about the wonder of making lonely music in an out-of-the-way place. “Many nights you would hide from the audience, when they were not in tune with your progress,” he sang, adding, in my favorite line, “In the end you are just like the journalist who turns what you sing into business.” It is clearly a fan favorite. In particular, the song’s second movement holds a place in the hearts of Northwestern listeners and as Jurado sang it, the room quietly sang along, hoping not to overpower their leader. “Leave me Manhattan, I want the evergreens. Write me a song I can sing in my sleep. As sure as the rain that will fall where you stand, I want you and the skyline these are my demands.”
I had wondered in the past how this song is heard by fans outside of this region. I wonder whether they can understand the tremendous love Jurado holds for his home and the sense of place his music contains if they can’t really share in it. As the final applause rose and dissipated inside the Neptune, I wondered about the future of Jurado’s music. I wondered if I’ll be able to hear what he is saying if I’m not a believer. It made me tremendously sad. As the fans filtered out around me, I felt alone.