It's been three-plus years since Jennifer O'Connor's last album, Here With Me, was released, and quite a bit (or not much, depending on your perspective) has happened since. Matador, the label that released the excellent Here With Me and its predecessor, Over the Mountain, Across the Valley, and Back to the Stars, dropped O'Connor from the roster, and she spent the next few years backing away from music.
It was a big shift for O'Connor, one that is explored deeply on I Want What You Want, her new record. This album shows O'Connor examining transition, delving into the past and planning for the future. If it's an album about change, about that transition, it's not an album in crisis. For her part, O'Connor sound contemplative but settled. She sings of "so many other ways we can change" on "Another Day (My Friend)" and she doesn't sound at all worried by the unknown but rather energized by it, ready to take the next step.
The album doesn't stray much from the basic format of its predecessors. O'Connor's sweet, understated vocals and acoustic guitar are up front with bass and drums and swells of electric guitar supporting. Yet something about this record feels more immediate and intimate, a straightforward counterpart to the more cinematic spaces of Here With Me. The overcast vibe of "07/12/09" comes more in O'Connor's breathy vocals and the ringing of acoustic chords. "Hidden Hill" adopts some twangy guitar to add to its bright sway, but mostly it's a threadbare dusty shuffle that sells the carefree tune.
O'Connor and her band don't hide behind layers here; this isn't about obscuring sound. Instead, O'Connor lays her songs out bare and to often wonderful effect, and the themes of the record reflect a similar clarity. It's an album that deals heavily in the past but is never dragged down by it. On "Already Gone," she is both curious and dismissive of the past, since she'd "like to understand but [she's] already gone." In these moments, O'Connor is informed by the past but not haunted by it. In this way, the record actually quietly achieves something quite difficult. This is a post-crisis record, about the moment after the fissure has healed, after the dust has settled. If this moment lacks immediate drama, in O'Connor's hands it is still a fruitful and emotive time, one full of its own uncertainties and complications.
"I don't wanna go where I always go, I don't wanna be where I've been," she sings on "Good Intentions," making clear the limbo she exists in on this record. The album posits itself at times as advice -- to a "you" that hasn't quite gained the same perspective on crises large and small O'Connor has -- but it is, upon multiple listens, less that than an investigation and confirmation into how O'Connor feels about where she's gone, what steps she's made to more forward. The brilliant closer, "Your Guitar," leaves us still in this moment of in-between. "You sold your guitar and went down the street, got on the bus, went home to sleep," she sings at the song's end, and it feels isolated, even maudlin, until she ends with "you never felt bad about being free."
What that freedom is and what it will bring remains unclear, but I Want What You Want is a record about shedding layers, about letting that which does not matter -- i.e. most of what's already happened -- fall by the wayside to see what happens next. That O'Connor put this record out on her own Kiam label is more than a little symbolic. But it's also a sign of what ends up being so surprising about this record: For someone who's always been confessional and open in her music, O'Connor sounds the most like herself here, the most comfortable in her own skin, and that feeling is transferred to us in these great songs.
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