9 Dec 2023

Review: Motorcycle Madness by Damien Jurado

From The Sampler, 2:30 pm on 9 December 2023

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Damien Jurado

Photo: Bandcamp

American singer-songwriter Damien Jurado has been releasing music since 1995, quickly showing a knack for gently crooned folk songs, nestled amongst more energetic offerings. He’s always been reasonably prolific, but this year has seen him release three whole albums.

The first, Sometimes You Hurt The Ones You Hate, is studio-recorded-and-polished, and available to listen to on physical media and Bandcamp, after Jurado announced he wouldn’t be releasing music on Spotify anymore. 

This is where things get slightly confusing though, as the following two records did come out on Spotify. They were also tracked live to tape, in mono, and labelled as if they were films. The credits say recording took place “on set”.

I was initially put off by the retro recording style on Motorcycle Madness, but the more I listened, the more that became its most inviting aspect. Details are maddeningly hard to find, outside Jurado’s Shopify page, which says the album was “taped live on set at Soundview Analog Recorders”, lists a ‘cast’ of musicians, and was co-directed with Jurado by Sean Wolcott, (which I assume in this context means co-produced).

On his Instagram, Jurado says he thinks it's his best work to date. The nature of its recording made me wonder if it was done on a whim to capture some burst of creativity, but then the number of players - eleven, aside from Jurado - would suggest a degree of planning.

The album runs 14 songs, some of which are abbreviated versions of others, or instrumentals. There seems to be a bigger concept or framework at play, but I can’t find a single interview with Jurado shining light on it. 

Perhaps after enough time a picture will emerge, but then there are his other two albums from this year to tackle. Maybe each informs the other. Some of them do share lyrics.

For the unfamiliar, Catherine Kerkow was one half of a pair who staged the longest distance skyjacking in American history, rerouting it to Algeria. The song is one of several tracks here so gorgeous, with Jurado’s creamy voice joined by female harmonies and soaring strings, you wish it would last longer than one minute and change.

The following track, ‘Passing the Elephants’, is the album’s most delicate, twinkling piano keys surrounding some of Jurado’s most simple, striking melodies.

Listening to Motorcycle Madness felt a bit like turning to chapter 20 in a novel and trying to get up to speed. I felt like I was missing a series of in-jokes, or references to other work. The most information I could find was on Reddit forums, from people who are familiar with Damien Jurado’s back catalogue, but still seemed to find his approach here equally baffling.

I’d much rather be pleasantly baffled than bored though, and the rewards here are ample.