While many artists boast a diverse resume, shuffling through Jim O’Rourke’s complete catalog is a mind-scrambling experience. He’s collaborated with Japanese noise legend Merzbow, and he contributed to and had a heavy influence on Wilco’s seminal Yankee Hotel Foxtrot. He’s experimented on his own and spent six years as a member of Sonic Youth. He’s put out dozens and dozens of albums, on his own and with others, ranging from elaborate art pop to minimalist drone. To avant-garde acolytes, he’s a genius. To others, he’s a mysterious figure in the shadows. In truth, he’s both. And even though his new album is called Simple Songs and finds O’Rourke indulging in solo singer-songwriter material for the first time since 2001, he still keeps some shade wrapped around himself.
On Simple Songs, O’Rourke is at once approachable and distant. He sings his lyrics with heartfelt sincerity, but he’s not the type to shy away from knife-sharp emotional twists. “Nice to see you once again,” he begins on opener “Friends With Benefits”, following with a less-than-sweet addendum: “Been a long time, my friend, since you’ve crossed my mind at all.” Songs like the sprawling, bruised “End of the Road” are honest to a fault, revealing every open wound: “I just gotta ask/ Just one time before you go/ Is that too much to ask?” he repeats, his words stumbling down the stairs along with the piano. After so many cartoon- and object-oriented album covers, he even graces the front of this one — but with his back turned, heavily layered.
O’Rourke has a remarkable knack for the whole singing thing, at least for a guy who spends a lot of his time ignoring it in favor of pyrrhic noise or empty-set spaces. After building on a sweetly swaying blend of snare, piano, strings, and acoustic guitar, “Hotel Blue” reaches a grand, growling vocal climax. There’s a bit of Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson to his reedy tone and nimble delivery, but also crooning singer-songwriters like Van Dyke Parks and Burt Bacharach.
But for all its technical strength and immediacy, Simple Songs is still Jim O’Rourke, the irascible, eccentric mind behind so many downright difficult albums, capable of finding the darkness in a song called “All Your Love”. Through the gritted, smiling teeth of a bouncing piano line and splashes of cymbals, he refuses to be anything but his dark self: “I know you tried/ To make me notice/ All of the things you think are good in you/ It’s no surprise, I wouldn’t even/ Even if there’s no one left, but me and you/ ‘Cause all your love, all your love, all your love will never change me.”
These are Simple Songs, but only for a decidedly un-simple man. Tonally, they hit the same nail on the head more than a few times, but each strike lands true and strong. The songs are mysteriously open, closed off in their approachability, layered in beauty and pain, and collectively serving as a reminder of Jim O’Rourke’s polymath multitudes.
Essential Tracks: “Friends With Benefits”, “End of the Road”, and “Hotel Blue”