Jennifer O’Connor has long been a compelling songwriter, and on her sixth full-length album Surface Noise, she continues to prove why we should all be listening to her. Combining her soft, understated vocals with melodies that sneak up on you with their subtle beauty and lyrics that make you think twice, O’Connor presents one of her most polished records to date.
The driving melody that opens up first track “Mountain” has a quiet sadness to it, but moves you nonetheless and makes you feel good. First single “Start Right Here” brings that same smooth and steady tempo that make you want to find the calm within the chaos. O’Connor’s singular focus is the force that drives her sound. She does not aim to be flashy, but her statements are still strong. Given the insanely successful few years she’s had, getting her songs featured in popular TV shows and even an Apple commercial, O’Connor could have felt pressured to fit a specific marketable mold, but instead, she has always remained wholly herself and that is part of why she is an artist we continue to turn to again and again.
While many of the songs on Surface Noise are simply O’Connor and her acoustic guitar, this is often when she is at her best. For example, “Falling Feeling” is a stunning, timeless love song, and “The Road”, a song about trying to move forward in spite of heartbreak, has some of the album’s loveliest call and response harmonies. “Standing for Nobody” is one of the darkest tracks on offer, but its quiet solitude is hauntingly beautiful.
Still, though, O’Connor rocks out, too. “It’s a Lie” is an edgy, percussion-heavy garage pop treat, and “Tell Me What You Need” is a subtly synthy and sparse beat-driven tune about an unknowable future. As per usual, O’Connor does not hide behind any overwrought production, and her band (drummer Jon Langmead and Yo La Tengo’s James McNew on bass) is solid. She’s been through a lot and it shows in these songs that confront fear, grief, loss, heartbreak and the thrill of what’s to come.