The singer-songwriter as an entity is not hip these days. It’s not cool to be out there alone, under your own name. Surround yourself with six to eight other people (perhaps including, say, a guy in a funny hat and someone playing weird instruments no one recognizes), and give yourself an abstract band name, or one with animal references, and it’s another story, even if at the end of the day one person is still writing the songs and singing them.
Perhaps this is part of why Jennifer O’Connor, after two albums on storied indie-rock label Matador, is back on her own label Kiam, where she started out 10 years ago, when she released her first of five full-length albums. At the same time, we’re in a period where it’s sometimes hard to tell how much having a “name” label matters. And independence seems to suit O’Connor. There’s an energetic spirit to this album, a general feeling of optimism within a set of melancholy songs. The short opening number “Another Day (My Friend)”, a tune which gets reprised near the end, begins the album with O’Connor’s voice, sounding especially in-the-moment, over one guitar. As in many of her songs, she sings direct words to someone : “My friend / my confidant / I want what you want”. Besides introducing the title, that last phrase is piercing the way she sings it. It sounds brave.
The ability of one person to completely disarm you with a sentiment and melody is still special in 2012. Also the ability to bring listeners into your mind – or, more precisely, to write and sing songs in such a way that the listeners feel like they’re being brought into one person’s thoughts. You know how you can be in a crowded place, in a city especially, and see strangers and wonder what they’re thinking, wonder what is going on in their lives? This feels like the musical answer to that, offering a window into conversations, relationships, the way people think about and deal with life. That personal slant is what sets us up for the effect of cutting through life’s noise and disarming us with a feeling that we recognize or relate to.
It’s a tough path to walk – emulating how we think and feel in a recognizable way without tipping over into melodrama, narcissism, pretention or pomposity; characteristics what too often tar singer-songwriter music as a genre, and rock, pop and folk music too for that matter. (The difference among those genres is often minimal, related more to surface-level things like whether someone’s performing under their own name, how loud their guitars are, how fast the songs are, etc.) Jennifer O’Connor’s songwriting tends toward the streamlining, cutting away details to get to the essentials. That doesn’t mean she performs completely solo (she has a band) or that she removes all poetic or geographic details (she doesn’t). But there’s the right balance of the crafted and the casual, of the confessional and the impression that she’s making a larger statement about the world in general. Mostly she just seems to be telling us things like a good friend would, or thinking to herself like we would, but doing it within songs with a keen sense for melody.
I Want What You Want has a mix of moods and tempos that makes it hit more immediately than her last album, 2008’s Here With Me, and much more strongly than most music that would be categorized with if you’re into simplistic genre classification. Melody is key. The difference between singing many of these songs in an over-serious, “folk singer” way and the way she does it is huge. The snappier uptempo songs (“Already Gone”, “You Come Around”, “Running Start”, “Good Intentions”) use attractive, hooky melodies to carry their stories and emotions to us, which works well. What feels easygoing in spirit also carries serious dilemmas, realizations, and expressions. The songs that are slower, more overtly sad in mood (“7/12/09”, “Change Your Life”, “Swan Song (for Bella”), “Your Guitar”) have melodies that are just as good, making them essentially hit that same point between emotional impact and pretty to listen to, just from another angle.
Without all of the songs standing together to comment on one topic – emotionally the album covers a wide landscape — I Want What You Want nonetheless themes that recur, parts of songs that point your brain back to a previous songs, and songs that seem clearly linked in terms of the people or situations they cover. That quality makes the songs stand airtight together as an album. While the songs include plenty of expressions of anxiety, frustration and regret, most of those feelings are fought against within the songs. They’re swept aside in favor of honesty, openness, and forward motion. As she sings at one point, “I don’t know any more than I did way back then / Just that I am done with moving in the wrong direction”. Moving forward seems the dominant action here. The overall impression on the album is of human beings striving to do better, of trying to get to a more hopeful place in their lives, on their own terms. The final line of the album is, “went home to sleep / and never felt bad about being free”.