Jim O’Rourke has always lingered on the margins, but there was a moment when it felt like he was at the center of the musical universe. In the early years of this century, O’Rourke, a musician from Chicago who has dabbled in everything from post-rock to jazz to noise to experimental electronics to Fahey-esque folk, began to lend his expertise to increasingly poppy music. He joined Sonic Youth unofficially in 1999 and officially in time to help kickstart their last great run of records with 2002’s Murray Street and 2004’s Sonic Nurse. He gave Wilco’s 2002 opus Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the visionary mixing job that sealed its classic status, and he went on to produce 2004’s great A Ghost Is Born. (I like to think he was responsible for Wilco and Sonic Youth touring together in 2003, which was rad.) During the same era, Loose Fur, his project with Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche, produced two albums nearly as inspiring as Wilco and Sonic Youth’s output at the time. O’Rourke also recorded and mixed Joanna Newsom’s transformative 2006 sophomore set, Ys, though by that time he had departed Sonic Youth and was about to retreat back into the underground from whence he came.
O’Rourke’s own discography is massive and challenging, but he’s never been poppier than on 1999’s Eureka and 2001’s Insignificance, the pair of solo records he released for Drag City just before his brush with the indie-rock spotlight. Eureka basically invented the sound of Loose Fur and A Ghost Is Born, applying O’Rourke’s acoustic fingerstyle, post-rock, and jazz bona fides to rich, wildly adventurous chamber-pop. It was an extremely outré sort of singer-songwriter record, and it ruled. Insignificance was even better, translating O’Rourke’s compositional genius to out-and-out rock’n’roll. He electrified his ornate guitar symphonies and matched them with canny observations and deeply sardonic punchlines, ending up with a misanthropic ’70s studio-pop masterpiece for the new millennium.
He hasn’t released a proper pop record since then — 2009’s The Visitor, his last ostensibly accessible album for Drag City, was a 38-minute standalone instrumental — but that 14-year hiatus ends with Simple Songs, and not a moment too soon. The fact that O’Rourke has been working on the record on-and-off for five years should tip you off that these eight tracks are not as basic as advertised. Rather, Simple Songs is another batch of lush, complex pop-rock tunes conceived and executed with an auteur’s touch — the late-breaking Insignificance sequel we never realized we needed.
Earlier this year I heralded a new wave of solo artists channeling the earnest, diaristic singer-songwriters of the 1970s, tapping into “that ’70s sweet spot when heavily orchestrated studio-pop bombast was often applied to tender, world-weary, expertly crafted tunes.” The likes of Father John Misty and Tobias Jesso Jr., I wrote, “conjure the ghosts of Randy Newman, of Harry Nilsson, of Todd Rundgren, of Paul McCartney, of Elton John when he could really send you to the moon.” O’Rourke explored all those grooves long ago, and he returns to them here to flex his expertise.
Each track is a little symphony to itself; from a few small musical kernels bloom gloriously florid guitar tangles, weird yet intuitive time signatures, and gorgeous ornamental flourishes aplenty. O’Rourke recorded the album in Tokyo with an all-Japanese band, and they play with the ease and ability of old session pros, giving life to O’Rourke’s cascading piano lines, dancing guitar leads, and timely blasts of everything from pedal steel to French horn to symphonic strings. There are flashes of Led Zeppelin (“End Of The Road”), Steely Dan (“Half Life Crisis”), and countless other paragons of adventurous ’70s pop-rock. None of the songs soar to the heights of Insignificance’s flawless first half — there really is nowhere to go but down after “All Downhill From Here” — but they get as close as O’Rourke acolytes could have dreamed. Rarely does rock music feel so carefully composed and arranged while still unspooling with a sense of spontaneity.
It’s all so impossibly pretty that the ugliness of O’Rourke’s lyrics takes on a heightened irony. As ever, he spikes what might be sweet little pop songs with bitterness, dissecting the objects of his contempt with the same meticulous precision he brings to the music. None of today’s other ’70s revivalists, not even self-loathing poet laureate Josh Tillman, matches O’Rourke’s ability to revive Newman and Nilsson’s wry turns of phrase. On the piano-pop ditty “Half Life Crisis,” he muses, “If you stop to think about it, might be time to cash in your chips/ ‘Cause you can tell from your face that you’re a charity case/ And your debt is piling up.” Sarcasm drips from “Last Year” from the very first line: “Isn’t that the guy from last year? Hey, he’s a wild man, he’s a real pioneer/ Hasn’t moved an inch since last year/ Hey, the man’s an artist, he’s committed to his craft.” O’Rourke sounds like a creeper on “That Weekend,” repeatedly demanding, “Just let me come over,” and on closer “All Your Love,” he embraces the role of magnificent bastard: “I know you tried to make me notice all of the things you think are good in you/ Here’s a surprise: I wouldn’t need them, 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.”
Yes, this is the same old O’Rourke, building beautiful sound-suites around his gnarled soul. Simple Songs is a blessing disguised as a curse, delivered with sharp wit and condescension but also an attention to detail that could pass for loving care. Nothing demonstrates the album’s glories, quirks, and paradoxes better than “Friends With Benefits,” one of the most instantly engaging lead-off tracks of the year. On its face, it’s the story of O’Rourke smugly indulging an old flame’s booty call, but I have to believe the song’s placement at the beginning of the tracklist after O’Rourke’s long absence from the pop arena was both purposeful and loaded. If I’m reading it right, it’s a genius preemptive strike: Before you can even begin passing judgment on Simple Songs, Simple Songs passes judgment on you.