The characters that have populated Damien Jurado’s previous albums have always had to deal with the challenges of life. Topics such as loneliness, regret, kidnapping, and broken marriages are common themes that wove themselves throughout Jurado’s songwriting, as his various characters struggled to make a better life for themselves. On Ghost of David, they come up against the greatest challenge of all, death. Although it’s not always dealt with directly, it’s omnipresent spectre hovers just behind every song, infusing them with a sense of urgency and mortality. It also makes for an incredibly compelling listen. But be prepared, the territory that Jurado explores is not for those seeking easy answers wrapped up in pop melodies.
The tone is immediately set on “Medication.” Jurado sings of a man who faces two trials, keeping one step ahead of his lover’s man and taking care of his mentally unstable brother. It’s a setup for tragedy one way or the other, and song concludes with a prayer for the brother’s death. When Jurado sings “Lord do me a favor, it’s wrong but I ask You/Take my brother’s life/‘Cause he’s sick of the suffering/The pills he’s inhaling/The cross he is bearing/That is his troubled mind,” you can’t help but feel sympathy for a guilt-wracked man.
The album reaches it’s emotional one-two punch with “Tonight I Will Retire” and “Ghost of David.” The former is one of the most heartwrenching tracks you’re likely to hear for a long time, the latter one of the most haunting. “Tonight I Will Retire” is both a suicide note and a fervent request for salvation. Jurado sings “And I don’t fear death/I welcome it in/Like an old friend I’ve known forever” and “And oh tonight, I will retire/To the loving arms of my Savior” with equal conviction and emotion. “Ghost of David” takes its name from a dream Jurado had of his best friend dying, a morbid subject to be sure. But Jurado puts a hopeful spin on it; Jurado sings “Forget him not, still he loves you/Life is short but love’s eternal” to his friend’s widow. The song concludes with a ghostly chorus of “Come on out we’re waiting for you” beckoning from the other side.
Although Jurado’s often called a “folk singer,” his sound is anything but straight-up “folk.” Ghost of David covers a wide musical terrain. The first handful of songs consist primarily of Jurado’s voice and guitar. But “Tonight I Will Retire” replaces the guitar with gentle percussion and a simple, yet haunting piano melody. “Paxil” is about as punk as Jurado gets, as Jurado’s distorted voice screams “My hand’s are on fire/I am the fire” over jagged guitars. “Walk With Me” throws in odd vocal collages in the background and “Rosewood Casket” comes from the same vein as the Carter Family. The album’s most sublime track is “December,” a chilling tale of a man freezing to death in a blizzard made all that much more so with icy synth washes (which provide a perfect backdrop for lyrics such as “December you killed a man trapped in his car for hours/I found him in his car hands stuck to the steering wheel”).
We have no idea what happens to the character in “Medication.” What happens to the couple in “Parking Lot”? Does he return to her, or does she spend the rest of her life waiting for him to call? Despite their lack of any real conclusion, they don’t leave you feeling cheated by their end. Jurado’s got his point across, the emotional impact is felt. You’re left with nostalgia, loss, unanswered questions — just like the characters in his songs. Not too many of us have ever prayed that God would take the life of a mentally unstable brother, but Jurado makes us feel the weight of such a painful decision (without trivializing it, I might add), and that’s where his songs derive their strength.