John O’Brien – Real Life

John O’Brien
Real Life

I remember being left with the impression from John O’Brien’s previous album – recorded under the moniker Highdivers – that the artist’s best moments happened when he let loose and focused on power-pop. But on that album, as on this, his first under his own name (he used to be a part of the pop band Tuesday Weld), O’Brien seems to want to explore a variety of musical styles. So you’re likely to hear Americana-tinged pop songs, quiet ballads, and catchy rockers all. And while my personal preference lies with the latter – for it’s in these songs that I think his music shines the most – there’s no denying the musician’s songwriting abilities.
That being said, it’s important to approach Real Life with a sense of irony. O’Brien may be a serious songwriter, but his songs aren’t necessarily serious, as shown on “Elvis’ Boys” and “Doc Marten Dreams.” The themes to some of these songs feel a tad silly, a tad ironic, and even if O’Brien is singing with a straight face, you can tell he gets a sense of delight from his songs, even if the lyrics take a more maudlin approach.
The title track is a good example of pure pop songwriting and a nice layering of instrumentation. O’Brien pretty much does all the instrumentation himself, and it works especially well on songs like “Real Life.” “She’s Got a Sound” and “Ghost Projection Machine” are excellent up-beat pop songs, verging on the power-pop but possessing a sweetness in vocals and instrumental layering. The jangly guitars of the latter fondly bring back memories of power-pop’s heyday in the mid-90s. Even the country romp of “Bottle on the Table (Prozac)” works extremely well with a kind of sly twist, and the acoustic approach of “High Wire” again shows off O’Brien’s songwriting talents.
As for the slower songs, they tend to be a bit more hit or miss. Acoustic guitars and organ mix nicely on the Americana-tinged “Elvis’ Boys,” a kind of dark pop song with some gorgeous layering of vocals. And the piano-led “September 13” is quiet and simple, but it has a lovely feel to it, and the lyrics are serious enough to work perfectly. The ode to the shoes – and the people who wore them, I suppose – of “Doc Marten Dreams” is a bit too slow for my personal tastes, and “Lesson 2” similarly plods along a little too much to keep up my interest mid-album (but fortunately things pick up afterwards).
The immediately obvious things about Real Life are the impressive grasp for instrumentation O’Brien has and his production values. My only complaint is a personal one: the more upbeat pop songs work so well, in my opinion, that I’m left wanting more and feeling like the slower ballads break up the album too much. Still, I suspect these may be the songs O’Brien’s most proud of, and I can’t fault him, as these slower songs show another side of the songwriter. Nice stuff, if a tad too eclectic, Real Life is a fine pop album.