The title of Jennifer O’Connor’s new album, Here with Me, gives us only part of a phrase. And that phrase could go a number of different ways. It could be a demand to someone, like “be here with me”. Or, a statement, as in “you are here with me”. It could even be, “stay here with me”, implying that the person O’Connor is singing to is already with her. And it can also be a wish, like she sings in the title track, “I want you here with me.”
What makes O’Connor’s songs, and this album in particular, superb is that she explores all of those possibilities. Here with Me moves seamlessly through hope, loss, love, reverie, loneliness, and friendship. And each of those themes are painted in shades of gray, nothing is clear-cut, and all are treated with a thoughtful subtlety. O’Connor’s greatest strength as a songwriter is her surgical choice of detail, her ability to render a moment both terribly personal and easily relatable by picking just the right minutia to focus on.
“Valley Road 86” is perhaps the most heartbreaking of all these affecting songs, and it is full of the careful details that have made O’Connor stand out as a songwriter in the past few years. She sings of childhood memories, where her and friends “stole cigarettes from Mary’s purse”, among other things. But it is that use of a name, the hint of familiarity, that shows us just how close O’Connor is to the memory, how it still affects her like it was yesterday.
But the tension in Here with Me is between the closeness of memory, the potency of hurt, and the singers best attempts to distance herself from them. “Valley Road 86” starts with the singer behind a sliding-glass door, looking out on the yard that has spawned the memory. “Landmine” not only deals with the title image, an explosive hidden from you but capable of damage, but each carefully wrought verse leads to a chorus that begins “at least that’s how it feels”, a phrase which lets O’Connor back off from another vision of the past, that gives her a little space between what she’s saying and what she’s feeling. Even on the opener, “The Church and the River”, O’Connor’s lover is waiting between those two things, so they seem like borders rather than dividers. But it is never clear, as her lover waits, that O’Connor is between the church and the river herself. She wants to be, we know that, but we don’t know she’s taken that step, no matter how much she swears she won’t let her lover down.
Many of these songs show O’Connor, and anyone else that populates these songs, buried deep in their thoughts, kept from just doing all the things they want to do. And the music on these tracks echoes that combination of simple want and frustration. While most of the tracks are anchored by O’Connor’s acoustic guitar and simple rhythm section, many are deep with layers of instrumentation that don’t immediately call attention to themselves. As O’Connor’s emotions build in the songs, so too does the music behind her, revealing for us the emotional depths that the singer sometimes stops short of fully admitting. The jangle of her acoustic battles with the high-whine of bending electric notes on “Landmine”. Here with me, mid-tempo and serene for the most part, breaks out in a squall of frustration when the drums pick up and the electric guitar croaks out a solo. An accordion adds another sad and affecting layer to the country shuffle of “Days Become Months”.
And none of those flourishes come off as gimmicks. Each is an organic and essential addition to the track. Never does O’Connor indulge in feedback shrieks or fuzzy noise rock tendencies to play to a trend. Here with Me beautifully marries the effortlessly catchy melodies and emotion of her last album, Over the Mountain, Across the Valley, and Back to the Stars, with the moody layers of her equally excellent The Color and the Light.
Clearly she is maturing slowly and without rush, and she is a performer that is improving with each step she makes. Even the slight missteps on this album—the overly vague dread in the first half of “Highway Miles”, and the loner-in-a-crowded-room “Xmas Party” that borders on cliche—aren’t mistakes so much as songs that aim for subtlety and land partially in simplicity. Hardly out-and-out misfires, they are just not as strong as the rest of Here with Me, an album of gimmick-free, beautifully written, and nearly impossible to forget songs. So the title can be part of a helpless plea or a lover’s wish or a heartbroken demand. O’Connor can conjure any or all of those emotions in just forty short minutes, with songs that can be just as comforting as they are lonesome.