Visions of Us on the Land

The Maraqopa trilogy, by Seattle singer-songwriter Damien Jurado, brims over with the uncanny prescience of genuine hope and the bittersweetness of sincere nostalgia. A delicate suspension incorporating choice morsels from at least five decades worth of music, it manages to be both behind and ahead of its time in all the right ways. It is, ironically, the ideal tonic for an age that refuses to live at peace with the present.

Beginning with Maraqopa in 2012 and going further down the rabbit hole with Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son in 2014, Damien Jurado has finally (for now) completed his Maraqopa concept trilogy with Visions of Us on the Land, released March 18.

The Concept

The Maraqopa trilogy does not follow an obvious narrative. Usually, when you think “concept album,” you think of The Wall or Tommy or the first half of 2112. That’s not at all what you will find in the Maraqopa trilogy. The story elements here are sparse and vague—silhouettes in the mist. Most of what I know about the story I have drawn from published interviews with Jurado rather than from the albums themselves.

Here’s the story from what I have gathered, though I have a sense that a lot of these details are either wrong or don’t matter much.

Maraqopa: An unnamed and semi-autobiographical protagonist finds himself in an idyllic visionary space called Maraqopa, which he explores (mostly in his mind). He then gets in a car accident, perhaps fatal.

Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son: Rather than cutting his vision short, the car accident propels the protagonist further into his visionary state. He visits deeper places in Maraqopa, spending time with the good people who dwell there: the brothers and sisters of the Eternal Son.

Visions of Us on the Land: Later, every one of the brothers and sisters, save one Silver Katharine, disappears from Maraqopa (presumably on a space ship). Then Silver Katherine and the still unnamed protagonist explore the abandoned world together discovering new truths about themselves.

But like I said, this narrative is not very clear from the albums themselves. What binds these records together more than a story is a cohesive aesthetic and mental space. Jurado revisits certain images, themes (musical and otherwise), and phrases—enriching, complicating, or redefining them as he goes.

Conceptually, the Maraqopa trilogy feels spontaneous without being haphazard. It has the feel of a project that has marinated, perhaps even unconsciously, for a long time in the mind of its creator, then was delivered nearly fully formed after that gestational period. This spontaneous organic sense is supported by Jurado’s own recounting of the writing and recording process:

So, it isn’t like I’m saying, “What rhymes with land?” or whatever. I don’t do that, I’m not that kind of writer. It’s all just free pen, free mind writing. I’m just dictating as it comes in my brain. . . .

I hate saying this and my other musicians will hate me saying this, but it doesn’t take much effort for me. I played the songs…they’re all one take, one after the other. So, what I mean by that is like … my initial track, the guitar and voice are recorded live. And it’s just me singing in the chair. So it’s almost like playing a set, but for Richard [Swift, Jurado’s producer and collaborator for the trilogy] being the only person in the room. So he just records my “set” or mini “set” of 20 songs and then we stop the tape and then we’re adding stuff on top of it. That’s kind of how it is. That’s why the albums go so quickly for us.

So the intentionality of the Maraqopa trilogy is within the project rather than forced upon it from the outside. It is not a building, in other words. It feels more like a good conversation. Or a person.

Because of this, listening to the trilogy takes on a quite fleeting prehensile quality. Your mind and emotions spread out within the sounds searching for purchase like the tendrils of a vine, and afterwards you reflect on the pathways of your musings and find that they have adopted a kind of structure. This structure might change over time, I imagine, as your needs change and you grasp other things.

But there is a structure. It just isn’t a narrative structure. That is unnerving, since my need to come to a conclusion generally outweighs my patience to explore a question. But, when it comes to the Maraqopa trilogy, the ambiguity and lack of resolution is intoxicating and addictive.

Just when you think Jurado is giving you some narrative finality—a car crash or even the end of the world—you find that the questions only grow deeper and the days keep churning on to a who-knows-if-we’ll-ever-get-there vanishing point. The story is within a mind, not vice versa, and it is the reaches of the mind and not the end of a story that this trilogy drives toward. As Milton said, “The mind is its own place, and in itself can make a heaven of hell, a hell of heaven.” Or as Jurado sings, “Out there is nowhere, inside is endless.” So you never can reach the end—only a joy in the endless present.

The Words

I had listened to the Maraqopa trilogy a few times before I read the lyrics, and I believed I had gained some insight into what a lot of the lyrics meant. That is, until I read the lyrics all written down, and most of my firm ideas dissipated like fog in the sun. Somehow a clear meaning for the lyrics eluded me in print.

After some thought, I realized a few reasons for this.

First, much of the meaning of the lyrics comes through in the feeling and tone of Jurado’s expressive voice. Without his voice, the vectors of the lyrics lose their force if not their direction.

Second, sung lyrics, like spoken words, are allowed to be tenuous and evocative, unfettered by grammar and spelling, but print forces every idea to exist in naked terms under the unambiguous terms of objects. Printed lyrics are like the equal-weighted harpsichord to the piano forte of sung lyrics.

Third, perhaps in an attempt to mimic the freedom of sung lyrics, the printed lyrics (for Brothers and Sisters and Visions of Us at least) contain numerous irregularities, even typos. This bothered me, as an editor and as a poet, because it indicated that the exact language and punctuation of the lyrics was not all that important or at least was not given rigorous attention for print. Either that or I’m missing something. Which might be the point.

All that said, the feeling, if not the meaning, of the lyrics is clear throughout. In this, the lyrics cohere with the concept of the trilogy: tenuous, fleeting, and durable to revisitation even when resistant to a direct system of interpretation.

But be careful not to dismiss its meanings and truths offhand, merely because they are obtuse—like Nietzsche who believed the poets “muddy the water, to make it seem deep.”

But I also don’t want to be Ayn Rand’s Peter Keating, either. He “was certain it was profound, because he didn’t understand it.” It may actually be because of the Peter Keatings of the world that so many poets get away with muddying their waters to appear deep. And, consequently, perhaps this is why so many critics have become so jaded to ambiguity.

But there may be another way of interacting with the impenetrable. Some water seems deep because it is muddy, of course, but some water actually is deep. That’s the rub. It’s hard to detect the difference between the bottomless gaze of a prophet and the empty stare of a cow. That may even be Jurado’s point in lyrics like “seeing yourself as the void on a zero”: sometimes it is very hard to tell the difference between nothing and infinity. And that has always been the struggle for the believer. Are we just creating pretty picture constellations out of cruel randomness? Or is there a real meaning here, however dim and peripheral it may sometimes be, and however hard it may be to hold onto?

The measure of how much meaning is applied by the audience and how much meaning is inherent in the work differs from person to person. For instance, I don’t really get that much out of Picasso’s work. But a lot of people who are far better educated, and more deeply feeling than I am say they get a lot out of it. Are they just posturing? I don’t think so.

It’s very possible, even likely, there are depths in Picasso’s work that I am not currently able to plumb. I try to remain open to that possibility. I revisit Picasso regularly to see if anything has changed between us. Right now, I’m still holding pretty steady in the range of indifference.

But I don’t feel that way at all about the Maraqopa trilogy, though it is similarly abstract and experimental. Perhaps it is because Jurado strikes me as being sincere even to a fault. Perhaps it is because all the colors of his emotional palette strike me true. But every time I revisit the Maraqopa trilogy, I get a little more out of the words and ideas.

Specifically, Jurado’s exploration of the profoundly lonely experience of divine and human abandonment is razor sharp. The albums visit and revisit the question: Do I leave people or do they leave me? Did I leave God or did he leave me? Many times in the process of listening to these records, I have had a strong desire to chase Damien Jurado down and give him a big bear hug.

A more heady, but quite palpable theme in the trilogy involves a hope in the future unity between the free and singular invisible and the compoundly fractured visible. This is mostly imaged in the idea of the daily and often “burned out” sun compared to the Eternal Son (a peculiarly Solomonic vision), but many of the images in the record reference the nameless protagonist’s attempts to live simultaneously in the unbroken heavens (clouds/wind) and on the earth: “Go back down; don’t touch the ground.”  Live in the Land, but don’t remain of it. This is but one of many paradoxical juxtapositions that require your mind to function like over-exposed film—a fitting image for this psychedelic musical pastiche.

I recommend interacting with the Maraqopa trilogy the way Billy Collins recommended reading poetry in “Introduction to Poetry.” Don’t strap it down and beat a meaning out of it. Just live with it and allow it to live with you. Thankfully, Jurado has made it easy for you to do that: these records are thoroughly pleasant musically, so they are a joy to listen to even if you have no idea what he’s talking about.

Who knows, though—perhaps they will begin to be as meaningful to you as they have become to me.

The Music

Being a sort of sci-fi themed concept trilogy, it is no surprise that the Maraqopa records draw deeply from the musical heyday of classic science fiction: the 60s. The Frankie Valli vocals in “Road to Jericho,” the Brian Wilson hat tips in “Suns in Our Mind,” the bossa nova shuffles, the tremolo guitars, the bells and vibes, the psychedelic swaths of plate reverb and analog delay—these all reference the sounds of the future from the past.

These records almost sound like they could have been published in the sixties. But not. The resurgence of vintage recording and tones in the modern day, and the persistent relevance of the synthesizer throughout the last five decades, makes the Maraqopa trilogy feel at once vintage and progressive. That’s a really rare quality in records, and it usually indicates timelessness. So the Maraqopa trilogy could just as well be the sounds of the past from the future—you know, “after rewind.” 

Since Maraqopa focuses so heavily on the dissonant combinations of hope and doubt, freedom and belonging, and especially the past and the future (the already/not yet), this eclectic, psychedelic, experimental combination strikes me as achingly perfect. Truly, many of these songs make me tear up merely from the exact appropriateness of their music. So natural, fluid, free, restrained—impeccable.

But really the whole trilogy rests on Jurado’s performances, especially his vocals. I don’t know that I have ever heard a more sincere or versatile voice. The perfect imperfections of Jurado’s natural performances and the brilliant plan by Richard Swift to let things develop and detour as they may has resulted in a remarkable (however reluctant) trilogy. I hope they continue to collaborate for years to come.

Conclusion

In the official bandcamp description for Brothers and Sisters of the Eternal Son, Father John Misty (about whom I have made no great effort to hide my annoyance) opines:

Damien Jurado made up his own Jesus because a Damien Jurado album needs a beautiful Jesus. Some freaky space Jesus that I don’t recognize. The name is the same, a lot of the imagery is the same, but he’s reborn. Born again, I mean. Yeah, as if Jesus got born again. That’s what this album sounds like.

Perhaps that is what this trilogy sounds like to someone who believes that an idol America made of Jesus is the real and only Jesus—which would be convenient if that someone preferred to leave old wounds closed. But, Father (John Misty) forgive me, I think you have it wrong. Damien Jurado didn’t reinvent Jesus. We did. And we got it wrong. So fiction has become necessary to rescue the truth.

Jesus came to legalists and fact-fetishists quite like us, and he found that our devotion to the “facts” had stalled us out in half-finished inquiries we thought were fully resolved. We used his names to refer to things he didn’t recognize as his own anymore.

So Jesus re-opened old wounds and old questions, speaking in fictional parables so those with ears to hear could hear. He spoke in parables to rescue the truth. The prophets of old similarly spoke in visions and dreams because our version of reality had become unsalvageably corrupt and dim. John spoke about Jesus in fantasy for the same reason. Damien Jurado speaks about Jesus in science fiction, like C. S. Lewis before him, for the same reason. But none of them are making things up really. They’re not just pining for a better crutch to help them hobble their way through life. They’re presenting the truth. “It was you all along,” see?

This world Jurado speaks of, for all its fantastical psychedelic trappings, really isn’t a fantasy: the listener with ears to hear should “see through I suppose these visions of us on the land” to the reality behind the visions. When what we accept as fact has become so distorted that it no longer resembles reality, prophets speak in fantasy to point us back to the truth. In other words, Maraqopa might be science fiction. But it’s true.

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