Caught in the Trees finds Damien Jurado at the height of his powers. It’s a cold and lonely place up there, but the album is a stark, beautiful document of despair grounded in visceral, conversational lyrics. If you see Jurado live, please steal his shoelaces. Give him a hug too. Similar to Nina Nastasia’s You Follow Me, insecurity and anguish are channeled directly into the descriptions and dialogue of third-person narratives. Unlike the avant-garde apprehensiveness of Xiu Xiu, wherein Jamie Stewart traffics in striking collages of pornography and childish bluntness to ensure maximum levels of discomfort, Jurado utilizes an old-fashioned approach by writing about misery through credible characters.
Even on his strongest records, Juardo’s whispery voice couldn’t sustain 40 minutes of songs about blue-collar brutality, but on his second album with his new band (which includes Jenna Conrad and Eric Fisher), the difference is astounding. After the hit-or-miss arrangements of And Now That I’m In Your Shadow, Caught in the Trees demonstrates a convincing, more confident group dynamic. The band demonstrates a fleshy, sometimes rollicking charisma that further sharpens Jurardo’s jagged lyrics.
The album begins with the breezy accusations of “Gillian Was a Horse” and gives way to “Trials,” which wouldn’t sound out of place in a Wes Anderson film at that moment when one of the characters experiences an epiphany and hurries off to atone for a life of assholery. By the album’s 12-minute mark, you’re in the deep end, desperately treading water with the rest of the poor schmucks Jurado systematically devastates in his wrenching stories. “Go First” and “Sheets” are almost unbearable renderings of relationships that have collapsed into emotionally damaged status quos. Dynamic, rich percussion drives the painful Q&A of “Go First”: “Are you all right?/You’re making me nervous/With how much you leave me here/Is it a sign?/I don’t feel I ever get enough/Tell me the lie/Taking your time/Over and over.” “Sheets” delivers an even more acute sting, with a horrifying account of a damaged three-way affair that follows its own irresistible, painful logic: “Is he still coming around like an injured bird/Needing a nest/A place to rest his head?/Still you take him/Lord knows, I don’t want to compete/Still I sleep in the very sheets he’s been in.” “Last Rights,” “Everything Trying” and “Best Dress” offer slightly more romance and optimism, though always qualified with the ominous.
The simplicity of Jurado’s writing is matched with a tender tone and a lack of condescension. And similar to the resplendent work of Lucinda Williams throughout her career, the descriptions and dialogue within the songs avoid the feeling that its themes are simply abstract metaphors. Instead, it’s all harsh portraits of disappointment (in ourselves and others) articulated through characters. People are terminal infections upon each other, but in Jurado’s stunning emotional autopsies there’s tenderness and care in the face of all our mutual afflictions with one another.