Jennifer O'Connor has been compared with and held up against so many chanteuses of the 1990s — especially Liz Phair — that it's become a disservice to all parties involved. Surely it's possible for a woman to sing passionately and intimately about her life without having to be equated with another woman simply because of a lazy implication that female experiences are all the same.
"I do find it limiting, and I get asked about this thing a lot or just compared to the same people over and over," the Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter said recently over the phone before breaking into a hearty, casual laugh. "If I allow myself to get caught up in that stuff, it really upsets me. Of course, I care what people think and I want them to enjoy the music. So if it's written about in a way that's careless or using one of three known examples, it just makes me feel like people really didn't listen."
Everything about Ms. O'Connor feels down-to-earth and direct, from the way she laughs at her own responses to questions, to the unfussy songs on her new album, "Here With Me," which was released Tuesday by Matador Records. The album, her fourth, delivers the sort of emotionally naked lyrics and plainspoken arrangements that have steadily earned her fans since she made her debut in 2000 with a self-released EP, "Truth Love Work." Ms. O'Connor performs tonight at the Mercury Lounge and Saturday at Brooklyn's Permanent Records.
Ms. O'Connor's 2006 Matador debut, "Over the Mountain, Across the Valley and Back to the Stars," was a quiet stunner. A few of its songs were devoted to her sister, who had lost a battle with brain cancer the previous year. Stark and moving, "Over the Mountain" was a document of transfixing sadness, conveyed in accessible songs delivered by an arresting voice. "Here With Me" expands Ms. O'Connor's gift for simple, emotional music, only this time her subject matter doesn't plumb such depths. "Here With Me" is about love and relationships, and while it features songs that are, for Ms. O'Connor, familiarly about dysfunction, it's also laced with upbeat, joyous sentiments.
"It's not an 'I'm going to write this kind of song' situation," she said. "It's usually much more natural. A lot of times, I'll figure out what I'm writing about as I'm writing it. I think in my subconscious I might be figuring it out and then I sort of shape them as they go. But sometimes I think the best ones write themselves. I don't always understand it."
If that's the case, Ms. O'Connor's relationships must be going much better than they have in past years. Album opener "The Church and the River" is a gently swaying ode to unwavering love. Only a soft guitar arpeggio powers the even more austere "Valley Road 86," a bittersweet memory of what sounds like a high-school crush: "We'd lie on your bed and talk for hours," she sings in her breathy alto. "I never thought you'd have to leave me." For the title track, Ms. O'Connor wrote a folk-pop gem about love's often thornier issues — a tune pragmatic enough to admit that love is work: "We've got a lot of time to get this right," she sings. "At least that's how I hope it's going to be."
Of course, Ms. O'Connor still retains her pith and wit, and in the lightly rocking "Xmas Party," she crafts a juicy send-off song. The narrator attends the titular party, where not everyone is pretty and not everyone is thin, before telling the person whom she came to see, "I think you're pretty ugly for turning into one of them."
In moments such as these, in which upbeat music frames devastating judgment and a lonely guitar props up lyrics about the human need for connection, Ms. O'Connor's maturing songwriting comes to the fore. In fact, her developing style (folk-rock music equally informed by country and blues) and distinctive voice better recall the late Townes Van Zandt — a songwriter who also invested his personal life in his frequently melancholy music — than any '90s indie darling.
Besides, it's not as if Ms. O'Connor is trying to sound like anybody else. Though she readily admits an admiration for female artists such as P.J. Harvey, she also named Elliott Smith and the Silver Jews' David Berman in the same breath. All are so-called "personal" songwriters, but that is part of the creative process.
"It's not like I plan to tell the world all these things," she said. "It just so happens that music brings it out of me when I'm writing it. If you're going to make music, it makes sense that things that are important to you might come out in the writing process."
Ms. O'Connor performs tonight at the Mercury Lounge (217 E. Houston St. at Avenue A, 212-260-4700).