There are two major observations to make regarding Jennifer O’Connor’s Here With Me, her second album for Matador and fourth overall. First, these songs of desire, loss and memory have an undeniable emotional depth. Second, O’Connor’s voice is languidly plain; it never seems to rise above a throaty flatness. She has a kind of blank disaffectedness that would almost be punk if it weren’t exactly the opposite of punk: i.e., intimate, easy and melodically accessible. Punk disaffectedness was a grand pose. O’Connor remains anti-stately to the end. She’s just an every-girl working through the problems of love and life. She’s just trying to say one thing (as she does on “Landmine”): “At least that’s how it feels.”
And these feelings revolve around the predictable problems of existence: memory and loss (“Valley Road ’86”), loyalty (“The Church and the River”), escape (“Highway Miles”), betrayal (“Landmine”), endings (“End of the Hall”), and, of course, love (every song). Behind the sentiments, the band’s arrangements switch between mid-tempo rockers and lonely finger-picked acoustic numbers.
O’Connor and the players worked out and recorded the material over two weeks, but the time constraint seems to have helped the album cohere around an idea of relaxed eclecticism. Each sound fits nicely with her voice, which is always clear and at the top of the mix. Michael Strandberg’s delicate electric guitar wanderings play against O’Connor’s melodies, especially on the second track, “Always in Your Mind.” In that song, the little blips of shimmering guitar add a hooky contrast to her breathy phrases. And in “Landmine” there are some noisy but muted pyrotechnics that support O’Connor’s final vocal stylings. The music remains at the service of the words, leaving it affecting but unchallenging.
That explains most of the album. Between listener and singer there is an unstated accord: Her voice will be our voice; her memories, our memories; her desires, our desires. Plain-spoken and therefore implicitly “honest,” she embraces her status as a democratic abstraction. Lines like “I want to give myself to you” (“Days Become Months”) and “I’m gonna go back to where I began” (“Daylight Out”) and “I keep fallin’ in love everyday with you” (“Next to Mine”) tend toward the general, even the cliché. These seem like the leftovers of feeling, but they are also an attempt at an emotional universality phrased in simple but conventional language.
Cliché isn’t necessarily the complete evil we often make it out to be. A balance between the conventional and the different is the very stuff of pop-art-making. It leaves space for us to fill in our own ideas and narratives. Though we seem to be overhearing utterances to other people in this album (an “I” nearly always speaks to a “you”), we can always sing along and have our own use for and understanding of the song.
Still, musical and lyrical particularities are always more interesting than familiar abstractions. And the best song on the album, “Valley Road ’86,” creates just this sort of strange particularity in both music and words. Accompanied only by a simple minor-chord progression on her acoustic guitar (which sounds surprisingly dense, rounded, and well-recorded — good work by producer John Agnello), O’Connor sings a halting, falling melody with a clear and concrete series of images. "From behind the sliding glass door/ We were constructing a cure/ For what you’d lost today/ And what you’d have to give way./ The backyard had a curse./ We stole cigarettes from Mary’s purse. /And smoked them all/ By the big rock down the street./ Your jean jacket had a frayed collar."
The song is direct without being generic. The person (a first love?) and place (Valley Road) intermingle, and we are genuinely struck by the loss of both. The song seems more naked and intense than the rest of the album despite O’Connor’s every-girl stance.
There is not much on Here With Me that surprises or overwhelms, but that is not Jennifer O’Connor’s brief. She accepts the conventions of singer-songwriter constructions of emotion, and she creates her own version of these emotions within those conventions. I, personally, want more poetry, more wine, more estrangement, more Dionysian ecstasy, but these are not the reasons to listen to this music. We listen to hear our life told back to us. We listen to hear our silence turned into song.