Jennifer OConnor: Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars
It isn't hard to find a musician writing songs "from the heart", but how often do those songs feel genuinely heartfelt to you, and really hit you in your own heart?
NYC-based singer/songwriter Jennifer O'Connor's third album, Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars, ends on an undeniably up note, with a perfect pop song that has an inspiring lift to it. "I pick you up when you fall down", she sings. "I think you're lost / But come on I'll bring you home". The song has a bounciness, a rhythm that swings, and a sing-along melody. All of this positive energy isn't just for its own sake, however. The song is directed to a sibling suffering from cancer; its verses detail a lifetime of shared memories, while its chorus is driven by hope. It's infectious because of its tune, and idealist tone, but it's powerful for its emotional core, for the honesty of her expression, "I just want you to know how much I care". The closing round of the chorus has her backed with a multitude of voices, combined into a communal letter of good wishes.
This sort of directness is rare in pop/rock music today. Sure, you can step into any neighborhood coffee shop and find someone singing "from the heart," but how often does the sentiment strike you as deeply as the singer means it? How often does it feel truly heartfelt to you? And how often are these open-hearted, pulled-from-real-life lyrics also part of sharply crafted, musically attractive, ridiculously memorable songs?
Jennifer O'Connor's self-titled debut album was marked by sharp songwriting that vividly conveyed feelings and moments. Her second album, The Color and the Light, was a huge musical step forward, as that same songwriting style was wedded to compact, catchy, energetic song structures. This third album -- her Matador debut -- follows from that place, and improves her approach even further. These melodic songs are impeccably composed, and performed with style. Her singing has become more expressive with each album; compare Jennifer O'Connor's "Sister" with this album's re-recording of it, for an obvious example of how much fuller and richer her singing is nowadays. And the songs are performed in a more tuneful manner. They're immensely pleasurable to listen to, no matter how dark the subject matter.
And the content of the songs is tough, the toughness of life. That album-ending expression of uplift, "I'll Bring You Home", feels even more sincerely hopeful within the story of heartbreak, confusion, and hurt detailed in the previous 11 songs. The stories winding their way through these songs involve the dissolution of relationships and family tragedy, along with the general struggle of dealing with the unexpected twists and turns of life. The poetry of the album title -- a line from opening song "Century Estates" -- is both a romantic image of hope and an account of how persistent struggles are, how doubt and pain follow everywhere.
It's an album filled with sadness, but also constant hope. The two are perennially entwined. "Exeter, Rhode Island" in part reflects the imagining everyone does about what life would be like if they moved to somewhere new, whether past troubles could be washed away. "Dirty City Blues" entwines O'Connor's voice with that of Spoon's Britt Daniel, in a lovely but dark circular wondering that's down-in-the-depths but determined to make things better ("I will try now to believe"). On "We Will Ride" O'Connor sings of a wish to escape, but does so somberly enough that you know it can never happen. During "Bullshit Maze", which bears a unique melody that stands out even on an album of great melodies, she memorably sings, "I think I'm sick / I think I'm well / It's never that easy to tell".
And amongst all of these stands one of the most remarkable songs I've heard all year, "Today". It's a brittle love song that stands out for all the reasons O'Connor's songs in general stand out. It has a lovely melody, sung in a particularly arresting way…but most of all it's artifice-free, stripped right down to its essential feelings. The song is a statement of love that's brave yet filled with uncertainty. It carries a doomed-to-failure feeling in its verses, yet its chorus encapsulates romance, longing, and desperation in one fell swoop. It has the power to stop anyone dead in their tracks.
Nowadays, "must-hear" albums are supposed to stylistically diverge from the pack. That is, it's rare for a critic to say that an album is better than the rest solely because of the strength of the songwriting, because the songs capture true-life feelings more completely than those of their peers, and within melodies that are impossible to forgot. But that's the case here. There's a simplicity to what Jennifer O'Connor is doing as a musician. She's writing songs about her life. But there's nothing simple about the songs themselves, or the effect they have on me as a listener. The best songwriting isn't always about innovation -- sometimes it's as simple as someone taking the toughest aspects of her life and finding the perfect way to express them in song, to turn them into something that others can sing along to, feel along with, and grow from.