The rule of thumb for comprehending Jim O’Rourke as a creator of pop songs is to savor the exquisite details without getting hung up on a particular outcome. “Simple Songs,” his first singer-songwriter album in 14 years, has the arid lushness and prickly intentions you’d expect, but he doesn’t want you to get too comfortable.
“Nice to see you once again,” is his welcoming first line on the album, murmured on a tune called “Friends With Benefits.” He deflates it within the next breath: “Been a long time, my friend/Since you crossed my mind at all.”
What follows in the lyrics, against a bright wash of chiming piano, strummed guitars and rubbery bass lines, has the ring of a transactional relationship. “There are friends already waiting,” O’Rourke sings in his proudly rumpled voice, over a rock-samba beat, “for the space that you’re containing.”
O’Rourke, whose musical reputation borders on the cult-heroic — as a record producer, film composer, improviser and all-around guru — has lived for the last decade in Tokyo, a calculated distance from the scene that would claim him. If “Simple Songs” feels like a follow-up to his lauded 2001 album “Insignificance,” it’s also an extension of “The Visitor,” a meticulously orchestrated nonvocal album from 2009.
It sounds fantastic as a study in symphonic-rock ambition and studio mixing techniques. O’Rourke’s encyclopedic pop knowledge means that he’s always a step ahead of listeners. It also means that he’s in control of his style markers, which fall here in the realm of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” and George Harrison’s “All Things Must Pass,” but with more flourishes of jazz-rock and chamber pop.
As a lyricist, he likes to dole out barbs, or withdraw the courtesies he just extended. Addressing a younger person in “Half Life Crisis,” he recommends cashing in, “Cause you can tell from your face that you’re a charity case/And your debt is piling up.”
On the closer, “All Your Love,” O’Rourke sings: “Please don’t cry/I might enjoy that.” In the chorus, he repeats the song’s title against a background that evokes sunlight through the clouds. But then: “All your love/Will never change me.” The arrangement ramps up and sprawls out, its layered grandeur presented as both a gift and a taunt.
Nate Chinen, New York Times News Service