Surface Noise has a new and fresh propulsion to it, but it's the way you'll sink down into the details of these songs that make them so rewarding.
Jennifer O'Connor's music is full of the geography of heartache. The bittersweet and the broken hearted can occur between a church and a river, among valleys, mountains, and stars, surrounded by color and light. Her songs find themselves on dark side roads or hidden hills. Up to now, O'Connor's albums seemed to bed down in them, mining the spaces and digging into the corners of them to understand them. A lot of time on her great albums has been spent trying to reconcile with these places, to live in them or take them wherever one may go. If this seems simple, it never is in O'Connor's subtle lyrics.
Surface Noise starts a similar way. On "Mountains", O'Connor sings of "going home, where it's over / where it's ending." Other moments like catchy first single "Start Right Here" and the overcast gem "Down to the Wire" suggest the same kind of search for space. But these songs set context for a shift in theme. If spaces in earlier albums were the site of the storm of heartbreak or the illuminating sunlight of new possibility, of small miracles, then Surface Noise seems to be more focused on taking stock -- of the debris left by past storms, of the small miracles still in need of documenting.
Considering some of the major events for O'Connor since 2011's I Want What You Want, this makes sense. O'Connor moved out of New York City got married but also saw her mother pass away after a long illness. She also used some music licensing profits to open and brick and mortar store named for her label, Kiam Records. It reads like a time of transitions and growth, and the album stops to take stock of it all. On "It's a Lie", she looks at "all the things you think you can't change," before discounting it with that titular phrase. On "The Road", however, she's working to get past "every little lie / every compromise", as if they're ruts in the pavement she can't steer away from. It's that sense of movement, of shedding layers that don't matter, that seems to shape this record.
Musically, Surface Noise maintains O'Connor's long-established pop sensibilities, but adds some new layers. As the lyrics try to shed layers, the album is constantly trying new ones one. It shifts from the shadowy rhythms of "Mountains" to the bright chords and buoyant bass line (courtesy of Yo La Tengo's James McNew) of "Start Right Here". We go from the overcast, echoing crunch of guitars on "It's a Lie" to the pastoral roll of "The Road". The lean folk-rock of "Down to the Wire" sets up the more muscled power-pop of "It's Gonna Get Worse". The album shifts from the dark to the bright, from shadows and roiling to sunbursts of sweet melodies. They all come together on the beautiful stillness of "Black Sky Blanket". As O'Connor feels her way through "new hope for the misanthrope" her careful half-whisper becomes more self-assured. The album plants its feet in this moment, a moment dug in far deeper than any surface noise, a moment where no one's waiting for the other shoe to drop but the past isn't totally the past yet either. Yesterday still leans in, but O'Connor sings like she knows just how much of that weight to shoulder by the album's end.
Surface Noise is another strong record from Jennifer O'Connor, and one that pushes her songwriting in new directions while also stretching themes of loss and redemption that have long been part of her music. There's a smoke on the edges of O'Connor's voice -- there always has been -- a sense of the multitudes hidden under the direct bittersweet feel of every note, and the best parts of this record use new layers of guitar textures and pulsing rhythms blow out those plumes, to both bring them to the forefront and yet make them all the more complex. There's always more to O'Connor's songs than it seems, maybe she's playing on that idea in the title, so while Surface Noise has a new and fresh propulsion to it, it's the way you'll sink down into the details of these songs that make them so rewarding.