Games of the Hearts: Three different songwriters show three different hands

Through detailed and memorable narration, Jurado made a contained, unified work—a record for my bookshelf.

Poor Nicolai Dunger, the former Swedish national soccer player and unsurprisingly handsome songwriter whose voice, a friend who’d heard his new record told me, brings to mind both Van Morrison and Rufus Wainright. Add to this that on his new release, Tranquil Isolation (Overcoat Recordings), Dunger is playing, producing, and singing with the indie prince Will Oldham, to whom Dunger had mailed an early EP years back. Given these gifts, Dunger makes the most of his fortune. Isolation is an inspired, soulful, and often bluesy record, delivered with a warm blend of acoustic guitar, piano, violin, and harmonica. While Dunger sings in a followable English—with a few memorable turns of phrase, such as one song’s opening, “Beautifully, I read it on a record sleeve”—the highlight of Tranquil Isolation isn’t so much the stories it tells, but the continual sound of Dunger’s voice. Through varied tempos and subjects—friendship, love, and music—it reaches and dips and carries over the instruments with emotion. With Tranquil Isolation, Dunger, the receiver of many gifts, gives one to us.

Perhaps less fortunate in the genes department is Daniel Johnston, a lumpy manic-depressive Texas singer-songwriter who’s just released Fear Yourself (Gammon Records). I’d been meaning to get around to Johnston for some time—reading other musicians’ praise of him and having heard Jeff Tweedy’s concert cover of Johnston’s “True Love Will Find You in the End”—but Fear Yourself has me left thinking I’ve started with the wrong record. Like the Tweedy-covered tune, Fear Yourself is completely concerned with love (the word’s in four song titles and sung in every song), but the record is so lacking in details of the songs’ subjects that it’s neither moving nor believable. “All my life I have loved you,” Johnston begins one song in his original lispy whine, but he never reveals why, much less who he’s loving. When another song starts up, “Well I saw her last night/what a beautiful sight,” I hoped Johnston was setting up a scene he’d continually paint in, providing a descriptive image to balance out the pile of declarations. He wasn’t. While the record has its merits—Sparklehorse’s Mark Linkous adds compelling layers as producer and arranger, and more than a few songs ride on undeniably poppy hooks—it suffers from that old cliché of unremarkable writing: it’s all tell and no show. Fear Yourself sounds like what I thought didn’t exist: generic passion.

Seattle’s Damien Jurado may have ruined us with his 1999 masterpiece Rehearsals for Departure, a record of love delivered lovingly. Through detailed and memorable narration, Jurado made a contained, unified work—a record for my bookshelf. Following Departure, Jurado hauled out the amps and made a full-on rock record, I Break Chairs, which gave fans something new as well as a longing for the old. With his new release, Where Shall You Take Me? (Secretly Canadian), the fans are back in familiar territory. And while this new record doesn’t hit the heights of, it has many moments of trademark Jurado: vivid imagery, dark tones, complete stories. Of the 10 songs, two sound a bit out of place (“Texas to Ohio,” with its loud echoing vocals, and the charming but toss-off-sounding “Matinee”). Two of the other 10 are classics, maybe the best pair of songs I’ve heard this year. The first of these is the opener, “Amateur Night,” which begins with these lines over mournful, slow acoustic strums: “First came the scream/and blood on the floor/the alcohol and magazines.” Jurado continues the harrowing in-character narration over a steadily rising dirty-motel buzz: “In my flashlight you were a star./Smile for the camera/take off that dress/It’s me who made you/It’s me who will take you.” The song ends as startlingly as it began: “I am not an evil man/I just have a habit I can’t kick/It starts with an urge/and ends with—Hang up the phone/I ain’t finished yet.” Jurado’s range as a writer is evidenced in the record’s second classic, “Window,” a warm and timeless ode to coupledom, which features beautiful harmonies throughout by Rosie Thomas. “I am looking at a beautiful window,” they sing together, “that window is your eyes,” a sentiment that here somehow blows past cliché. By the time the couple hits the fourth verse, the spare song moves into a spiritual, with the female vocals doubling over themselves, until it sounds like the song’s being led by a small congregation, In just two songs, Jurado movingly portrays the two poles of passion: its most vile, its most lovely. Departure

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