Review: Damien Jurado, 'Visions Of Us On The Land' Jurado finishes a trilogy of albums with a sprawling, 17-song story arc that leaves loose ends while remaining anchored in gorgeous songwriting and lush, layered indie-folk arrangements.

Review: Damien Jurado, 'Visions Of Us On The Land'

Note: NPR's First Listen audio comes down after the album is released. However, you can still listen with the Spotify playlist at the bottom of the page.

Damien Jurado, Visions Of Us On The Land Courtesy of the artist hide caption

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Courtesy of the artist

"I went looking for a new direction / Indecisive, undecided," Damien Jurado sings in "Onalaska," one of the eeriest tracks on his new album, Visions Of Us On The Land. He's singing in character; there's nothing remotely indecisive or undecided about Visions. His direction, though, is indeed pretty new. The album is the final installment of a loose trilogy Jurado began with 2012's Maraqopa and continued on 2014's Brothers And Sisters Of The Eternal Son. This time around, he's delivered a sprawling, 17-song story arc that picks up where Brothers left off — that is to say, somewhere near the edge of terra incognita. After a car crash sends the trilogy's unnamed protagonist on some hazy kind of metaphysical odyssey, he's arrived at a state of existential bemusement, searching his psyche for answers. It's a heady concept, for sure, but one that Jurado anchors in gorgeous songwriting and lush, layered indie-folk arrangements.

That said, Visions isn't folky in a heart-on-the-sleeve kind of way. Jurado's no stranger to sad, sparse songs — he built his early career on them — but on Visions' "Sam And Davy," for instance, he forgoes the acoustic confessional in favor of something far grander. Not to mention bleak: With minor chords, booming bass-drum detonations and menacing flourishes of synth, Jurado yanks the wheel and forces a detour into the depths of psychedelic reverie, asking, "Does your blood run cold / Or your eyes go white / On a borrowed soul / And on borrowed time?" In "Prisms," Jurado channels one of his longtime heroes, Nick Drake; a more skeletal, guitar-plus-vocal track, it ponders the nature of memory as Jurado sings, "Do we still go on / Long after rewind?" His voice is so ghostly and echoing, it answers his own question.

Things don't exactly get upbeat from there — although "Exit 353," the first song he wrote for the album, has more of a left hook to it. A propulsive, chillingly lonely dirge spiked with a distorted, tooth-rattling guitar riff, it contains yet another unsettling question ("Are we all not lost in song?") whose response is self-evident. And in "A.M. A.M.," Jurado's singsong, reverb-cushioned melody is as plush as it is haunting. Richard Swift, an accomplished singer-songwriter in his own right, once again provides the assist as both producer and guest instrumentalist; his shadowy atmospherics stand out in "Mellow Blue Polka Dot," a cooing, catchy shuffle that recalls Bill Callahan's dark pop explorations.

Jurado has been playing the long game with his trilogy of albums, but the story arc doesn't come to a satisfying conclusion — nor should it. After the fingerpicked, Dylan-esque hush of "Orphans In The Key Of E," Jurado wraps up the album with a glance over the shoulder: "When I look back upon my time, see the snapshots of my life," he sings, "You will not be surprised to see your name across my smile." It's a small, welcome moment of sentimental peace, but it's fraught with its own ominous sense of loss as the refrain of "I will remember you / The way you are right now" begins to sound more like a fading distress signal than a comfort. As works of mood-altering music go, Jurado has upped the dosage with Visions. It's a harrowing trip, led by a guide who's all too familiar with the territory.