Chicago musician Jim O’Rourke has a deep and varied catalog, from avant-garde composition and experimental jazz to indie-rock and wild noise, and collaborations in one form or another with the likes of Sonic Youth, Wilco, Superchunk, Beth Orton, Will Oldham and Stereolab, among plenty of others. None of it is simple, so don’t be fooled by the title of O’Rourke’s latest: Simple Songs is only simple by comparison.
While these eight new tunes are more straightforward than much of his work, that is not to suggest they are lacking in intricacy. Drawing on elements of classic pop songcraft, O’Rourke uses melody a through-line in musical arrangements that shift frequently through instruments and textures, and with enough subtlety that it’s easy to miss as the songs scroll by. A 15-second acoustic guitar intro on opener “Friend With Benefits” gives way to lush piano and astringent electric guitars that alternate in the lead, while the machine-like guitar on “That Weekend” pauses at the end of the refrain for a sparkly piano break—the musical equivalent of a big, toothy grin. Bold piano holds sway on “Half-Life Crisis,” while rich harmony guitars swell over twitchy drums on “Last Year.”
O’Rourke lays way back on “Blue Hotel” and “These Hands,” which together comprise the mellow, steel guitar interlude of the album. The former song also includes an unobtrusive blend of acoustic guitar and subdued piano, and the latter features fingerpicked guitar and hazy waves of steel guitar that float beneath O’Rourke’s careful quiet vocals. In fact, both songs stand as persuasive rebuttals to anyone who still thinks O’Rourke isn’t much of a singer. His subject matter is a separate issue: “But then again, our hands are not our friends/ They’re leading lives of their own/ They don’t need us no more,” he sings on “These Hands,” which is rather less scabrous than some of his other lyrics. “Please don’t cry, I might enjoy that,” he sings on album closer “All Your Love.” He repeats the song title as a refrain before adding, “will never change me.”
Deadpan misanthropy has long been part of O’Rourke’s shtick, as if his concession to singing pop-ish songs (or possibly to singing, period) is to skewer the lyrical conventions underpinning pop. Even more subversive, though, is how easy O’Rourke makes it look here as he toys with structure and form without sacrificing accessibility. If it were really that simple, of course, everyone would be doing it. It speaks volumes that O’Rourke is among the few who can.