Jim O’Rourke is a guy who makes a lot of music. If you check out his discography online you’ll find he’s released an album pretty much every year starting from the late 80s. Sometimes more than one, in fact: in 2015, O’Rourke has released a whopping five albums in collaboration with various different musicians. So it’s ironic that the most considered and accomplished of those albums is titled Simple Songs, and clocks in at a modest 38 minutes. We shouldn’t be surprised, though: O’Rourke’s last album to receive as much critical and commercial attention as this record was titled Insignificance, and it’s cover featured a characature of O’Rourke with some hefty manboobs and a lot of pink spandex. It’s as if O’Rourke is using his self-effacing humour to separate the more conventional side of his musical output from the avant-garde drone, glitch, ambient, and improv experiments he releases in between. He needn’t be so modest, though: Simple Songs is just as intricate as anything else he’s released, and hides a great deal of complexity behind a warm, welcoming exterior.
Musically, this album pursues a similar chamber pop/soft rock path to Insignificance, but this time around the emphasis is more on the former of the two. Nothing on here rocks quite like ‘All Downhill From Here’ did, but the variety of instruments that turn up on Simple Songs is a lot larger. Accompanying the guitars, drums and bass is a plethora of pianos, violins and other instrumentation that adds a lot of depth to the record. And as expected from a guy who produces almost as many records as he releases, each instrument here is clearly audible and tightly mixed. Little details make a big difference, like the violins quietly purring in the verse of piano ballad ‘Hotel Blue’, or the (I think) sitar in the bridge of ‘That Weekend’.
‘Last Year’ is probably the rockiest song on the record, and features a lovely guitar lick that turns up throughout the song in various different guises. But its used to particularly great effect in the chorus where the rest of the instrumentation pauses for just a second while the guitar bends off fierily into the empty space. The lyrics on this track, as elsewhere on the record, are enigmatically banal: ‘I lost my lighter round here / If you see the guy from last year / Say that he can keep it / I’ve got another one’. Whether this has some secret significance for O’Rourke or whether it’s just the first shit that came into his head while writing the song is anyones guess. And while we’re on the subject of enigmatic -I’m pretty sure ‘These Hands’ is a legitimately moving ballad about masturbation, but I might be wrong.
Straightforward, honest, and witty, this is an album that might be simple, but certainly isn’t stupid. And it’s another top quality release from Jim O’Rourke.