This album differs starkly from everything else on this year-end rundown in the weight of expectation and breadth of interest its release attracted. Never having heard Jim O’Rourke’s 1999 landmark Eureka and only really having encountered his work through his numerous collaborations and production credits, there is a huge wealth of context behind Simple Songs that I’m not a party to.
My first reference point coming into Simple Songs is the backing band, including Tokyo indie and experimental scene veterans like drummer Tatsuhisa Yamamoto and pianist Eiko Ishibashi, while there are elements of the lineup (including O’Rourke himself) that connect this album to singer-songwriter Kenta Maeno, whose brand of folk and chamber pop shares some similarities with O’Rourke’s own. Yes, he has been doing his thing since way before any of this mattered, but here in Japan now, this is the context into which O’Rourke’s music more or less fits.
And Simple Songs excells, the musicianship an immaculate vehicle for O’Rourke’s meandering musical vision, drifting with ease from one movement to the next, making the dense, rhythmical and melodic complexity of the album feel completely natural. These are not really simple songs then, but while songs like Friends With Benefits and Last Year contain multiple songs’ worth of ideas, each of those ideas has at its heart a simple, memorable pop hook that anchors them in something immediate and accessible without hemming the song in from taking any of its multiple excursions into more abstract sonic territory.
The lyrics feel like a trap for the amateur psychologist, their barbs open to interpretation as possibly a series of vicious put-downs or a maybe a more reflexive exercise in self-laceration. O’Rourke’s lyrics defy easy analysis, but they are sharp and intelligent in their wordplay, and he is a master of his craft when it comes to leaving a word hanging at the end of one line that then gets cruelly undermined by the next.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Simple Songs from the perspective of music in Japan is the production, with the sound striking in how far back it appears to sit, in contrast to the heavily compressed, up-close sound that seems to prevail on so many other people’s records. More than any other record I heard in the past year, Simple Songs seems to want you to feel a sense of the room in which it was recorded – to use the speakers to draw you in rather than to push the sound out.
In the wider music world, the reaction to Simple Songs felt like it had been (not unjustifiably) coloured by all manner of expectations, although it seems to have satisfied most of the anticipation projected onto it. In the more microcosmic space of the Japanese indie scene, it also has a place where it feels at home though, and that it excels in both contexts pays fine testament to Jim O’Rourke’s songwriting and musical vision.