Damien Jurado lets the people in his songs tell their stories through an almost serene lens. That only brings their crises into more devastating focus. “Cloudy Shoes” begins Saint Bartlett with a combination of strings, piano, and echoing handclaps that would go nicely with a song of relief, and then Jurado sings, “Some days these hospital stays get the best of me.” It’d come off as Tragic Irony 101, except that the matter-of-factness in his vocals makes it startlingly realistic. Another fine model of Jurado’s frankness, “Rachel & Cali,” pours tension and sympathy into a story of companionship, trust, and anxiety.
Tracks like “Throwing Your Voice” and “Wallingford” never entirely reach the crisp clarity of 2008’s Caught In The Trees. “The Falling Snow” does, thanks to an ominously mounting piano figure and a vocal melody that pushes a little harder than the others on Saint Bartlett. The verses of “Kalama,” in which the narrator asks his mother, “Will you keep me as ashes?”, deserve better than just a respectably engaging gospel-waltz. “I know I should have been thrilled,” Jurado sings on “Kansas City,” and much of Saint Bartlett would be a thrill, were the melodies and arrangements as bold as the words. Some days, Jurado’s gift for understatement gets the best of him.