Jim O’Rourke, for those who aren’t familiar, is known in musical circles as a complete badass. His many exploits include being a member of Sonic Youth at their peak, working on the most interesting Wilco albums (and winning a Grammy for one of them), and mixing Joanna Newsom’s Ys. You don’t have to know any of this to be able to appreciate Simple Songs, an album so appropriately named that you’d be hard-pressed to find a single superlative that accurately describes it.
The pervading mood of this album is contentment, not necessarily in subject matter but in presentation. It’s refreshing to hear music that isn’t full of swagger in a bid to sell me on it. O’Rourke is offering his songs up as an option, but if you’d rather listen to something else, that’s fine too. That attitude is compelling and highly effective in a time when marketing has devoured everything we love to such a degree that the most anticipated series finale this year was literally a show about marketing.
What I discovered in trying to pin down exactly what makes Simple Songs worthwhile is that the typical critics’ rubric — style, songwriting, performance — doesn’t apply in the least. Yes, it’s consistent, well-written, and well-played, but these things don’t set it apart from any other “good” music you’ve heard. The only adjective that applies here is subtle, and how that subtlety is developed and sustained in the production. There are slow builds to and from everywhere: a sparse, intimate prelude gets louder and larger as a ride cymbal enters and strings swell up and a piano bangs and there you are at the top of the mountain without ever being distracted by the ascent. The few jarring moments are so deliberately placed that you never expect them, but you’re also not surprised.
There aren’t many artists who can do what this album does. Frank Ocean, Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Warren Zevon’s debut, and Rufus Wainwright’s ballads all do to some degree. But where those artists generally utilize restraint to throw their eventual passionate denouement into sharp relief, O’Rourke’s passion is his constraint. Instruments come and go when they’re needed. Melodies and transitions arc with engineered precision, with no notes wasted. “Last Year” swings with authority and then settles into a loping gait that sounds like CSNY if they’d managed to stay together for three or four albums, but never in a way that seems ingratiating or contrived. “Hotel Blue” sneaks in as quietly as possible, and by the time O’Rourke roars out the final lines you feel exactly what he’s feeling. Every bit of passion and catharsis is fully communicated across those few bars, and then it’s over. Other examples of this — the one that immediately sprang to mind was Zevon’s “Desperados Under the Eaves” — will take aim at that passionate moment, and telegraph it, and then dwell on it for as long as possible. In such a sea of exorbitance, O’Rourke is happy to be simple and concise.