We live and we die and we’re born again. In effect, we’re constantly re-living the same experiences. There’s something deeply instinctual about déjà vu, a strange force that seems to operate in conjunction with daily life’s ebb and flow. The times when we’re more together in our heads are the moments we’re bound to be more cognizant of this never-ending cycle and our immediate place in the spiral. Taoists are endlessly devoted to achieving that sort of mindless balance. Bodhisattvas recognize that, in order to hear the tune of life just right, they have to escape the society that molded them and experience the fringes. In 2016, Damien Jurado seems to have at least superficially tapped into this on his 12th studio album (and ninth release for Secretly Canadian) Visions of Us on the Land, the third and final installment in his existential Maraqopa trilogy.
There’s something about albums with recurring sonic motifs that gives off a deeply hypnotic looping effect. If the listener is entranced enough, I imagine this is what sonic enlightenment must be like. There were certain psychedelic touchstones that immediately came to my mind upon giving this record my first listen. My ears perked up immediately upon hearing the aqueous string section in opening track “November 20,” which recalled Love, or The Zombies circa Odyssey and Oracle. And all of the clanging samba percussion threaded throughout this record is reminiscent of the old Tropicália maestros, such as Gal Costa and Os Mutantes.
A particular curiosity, “Walrus,” is a reworking of Bill Withers to a tee—sax, “Use Me” drums and all—and it works just as well as anything else on here. And that’s the appeal of this eccentric record (and Jurado himself) that I couldn’t quite put my finger on prior to my first encounter with Visions. He has an ability arguably akin to Prince, wherein no matter what musical style is indulged in, the parts always blend into the spectrum as if effortlessly, and every musical inspiration is matched on paper. There are multiple occasions, like “Sam and Davy,” when he sounds a lot like Louisville troupe My Morning Jacket (never mind he’s been in the business a bit longer). Those moments conjure up the exact emotions expressed so keenly on the aforementioned’s early records, but his own dilemmas can’t help but seep through. That’s the visionary’s mark at work.
The visual landscape this LP inhabits often feels like it was recorded not from a man’s subjective mind but directly through a camera lens. Maraqopa is seen from the most objective and uncritical viewpoint imaginable, both the life of Jurado’s mind and the life in front of him unfolding just like unconscious breathing. This kind of nonjudgmental lens perspective is inherently nihilistic. Nevertheless, chaos and enlightenment are strangely suitable bedfellows, and at times the man does sound like he’s learned something from the sights he’s seen and the pain he’s suffered.
However, there’s also a keen visceral, practically demonic quality about this LP that keeps it from feeling detached. A tune like “Qachina” veers from rumbling and sinister to explosive, sounding like an exotic escapade gone subtly-to-horribly awry. Visions lacks a conscious ego. It isn’t tinkering or meticulous, but it has its own subconscious identity, fully formed, deranged and lurking just under the surface at all times. Even by the time the more plaintive ballads have arrived in the final stretch to alleviate the pain, the devilish specter remains and in fact grows by its mere absence. It all starts like a firestorm and a hurricane gone far too long, and that it ends so quietly is one of the eeriest tricks Jurado plays on this two-faced record.
What is supposedly the bookender to a vast trilogy doesn’t sound like a closing statement for a solid portion of its running time. Instead, this collection just sounds like another series of rainbow snapshots from a man’s rambling mind, at some turns breezy, some uncomfortably introspective, and some thunderous and hellish. Jurado’s exile from civilization is grand and wicked, but it doesn’t pretend to be anything more than another rich carnival-esque excursion in the ever-widening trail. In fact, the relative lack of closure in the whole of the record is not a drawback or a cliffhanger, and I suspect he meant for things to end this way. Humbly suggestive, Visions is an irresistible sideshow act.