There he is (I assume it's him). There's his back, anyway. He's shunning us. Or is he musing on something that lurks within the cover's inky black expanse? Either way, he's smoking a ciggie, dimly lit in red and green (is he stopping or going?). Bucket hat on. Cardigan snug. Oh Jim, you probably hate this new album already and it's only just being released...
He may be notorious for disowning his musical output, including my beloved Eureka, but I trust Jim O'Rourke. I trust that whatever musical direction he goes in – whether one-time member of Sonic Youth, collaborating with experimentalists like Oren Ambarchi, or releasing ambient drone via Bandcamp – there'll be something going on I can sink my teeth into. His Drag City releases have always been the most accessible, and Simple Songs is probably the most palatable of the lot. Exquisitely palatable, in fact.
I like the way Jim is unashamed of pulling classic '70s rock and MOR moves. Admittedly, the melodic flourishes he throws in here and there are probably tongue-in-cheek references – I'm sure I picked up some direct 'quotations' of Led Zeppelin's 'The Rain Song' and Queen's 'Don't Stop Me Now' on 'End Of The Road' – but it's all handled deftly, so it never comes across as pat. With typical O'Rourkian verve, these songs are far from simple. Knowingly absurd at times, but never resorting to cheap shots. He's too damn good for that.
On a purely sonic level, Simple Songs is delicious – and eminently crankable. Jim's spoken at length about his working process when it comes to recording acoustic instruments, and Simple Songs has the same wondrous instrumental depth as The Visitor, mixed with some of the playful Southern boogie of Insignificance. Then, when you start registering his usual wry, misanthropic lyrics, laying low in the mix to keep you guessing, the sour balances out the sweet and the whole cake slips down real smooth. The thirty-eight minutes fly by.
Straight out of the gate, 'Friends With Benefits' and 'That Weekend' are two of the most immediately satisfying vocal-led songs he's yet released. He riffs all over the shop, cramming in enough melodic ideas to fill an entire album. The Supertramp-esque 'Half Life Crisis' lays on the snark ("I can tell from your face you're a degenerative case"!) and some tasty unison guitar leads from the Thin Lizzy songbook, before 'Hotel Blue' and 'These Hands' dial back the groove for some wonderfully languid piano and pedal steel.
There are no production tricks to generate interest; the songwriting, arrangements and dynamics hold me rapt. There's something deliciously immersive and pillowy about the way the album flows, but when Jim lets rip, you know about it. His throaty roar of "All seats are taken!" during 'Blue Hotel' sounds genuinely impassioned, and the second half of finale 'All Your Love' is basically an excuse to go full-prog on the drums – in a very precise and musical way, of course.
It's been a six-year wait since The Visitor, so a new Jim O'Rourke solo album is a cause for celebration. Thankfully, Simple Songs is an achingly beautiful salvo from a master craftsman. No doubt this will be my favourite album of 2015 – or I'll eat Jim's bucket hat.
Simple Songs is available from Drag City in LP, CD and FLAC formats from 19th May.