Christian Fennesz and Jim O'Rourke are both serial collaborators who use side projects to explore beyond the hallmarks of their solo work: O'Rourke to escape his pop leanings, Fennesz his fascination with drone and distortion. But It's Hard for Me to Say I'm Sorry isn't so much a typical exercise in exploration as one in purposeful restraint. Built of just two extended tracks and a limited set of instruments, the album sounds like an attempt to see just how little these two avant-garde composers can do together.
This sense of focus makes It's Hard for Me to Say I'm Sorry a rewarding listen, and a strikingly cohesive work from two artists whose discographies are intimidating in their scatter and reach—not to mention whose personalities are deeply fogged. O'Rourke is an especially dense chestnut of a musician and producer, his music imbued with dark and often inscrutable humor; it can't be coincidence, for instance, that he released a different ambient collaboration last month titled I wonder if you noticed “I'm sorry” is such a lovely sound it keeps things from getting worse. Yet his influence, whenever this album's glitchy synths fumble into compelling hooks, comes through cleanly and clearly, and his fondness for abrupt change is reined in by Fennesz's mastery of subtle transition. Meanwhile, Fennesz's tendency toward gurgling electric guitar is reduced to a few controlled solos, suggesting even further that the album is a consciously designed and conciliatory set.
The contemplative opening track, “I Just Want You to Stay,” establishes the album's tone: Fennesz and O'Rourke use minimal synth layers to construct a theme, then improvise using various found sounds and traditional instruments to distract from, duel with, and at times almost destroy their original creation. Starting around the six-and-a-half-minute mark, after quiet synths achieve an aura of hypnotic tension, sections of guitar and ascending computer sounds arrive like curious intruders, but ultimately fade out at the edge of a major hook or total upheaval. It's sometimes surprising when these disruptive instruments disappear to hear that the synths remain; by the song's end, it's even a comfort to rediscover the central tension in the continued plodding of keyboard washes.
The album is the fascinating work of two artists committed to sounding non-committal.
Similar inversions and in-jokes play out through the track's 18 minutes, like the way muted bongos—normally a cheerful sound—are buried in the mix and played lifelessly, or how the loudest stretch of sound (around the 12th minute) is calmed down by a click track. “I Just Want You to Stay” concludes with the jarring and repeated noise of a skipping keyboard tone, like a stun gun firing off uncontrollably—perhaps Fennesz and O'Rourke's cue to how easy it can be to simulate a sense of paranoia, compared to the difficulty of their shaping this same mood subtly and meditatively throughout the track.
“Wouldn't Wanna Be Swept Away,” which has the same underlying structure, is decidedly more anthemic and cinematic. The core of the track is a calm, simple riff of the same note played twice, but an octave apart; the riff opens the song, then resurfaces halfway through to save the whole thing from swollen synth chords and deafening noise. The song's final third features the album's most vivid stylistic collision, when a massive two-note guitar hook overwhelms the serene atmosphere which Fennesz and O'Rourke draft up over several prior minutes of interwoven synth washes and computerized imitations of field recording. Like on the first track, this disorienting arrangement makes the song's quietest segments—which are inherently very strange, sonically—seem familiar even in the course of one listen, but it still avoids any outright refrain or overriding predictability.
If there are essentially two outcomes to this type of sonic collage (either its movements and melodies become distinguishable after a certain number of listens, or it shifts to the context in which it's experienced and sounds new every time), then It's Hard for Me to Say I'm Sorry falls somewhere in between. The album plays like an inadvertent suite, with introspective ambient moments anchoring each track that become quickly recognizable while the sonic disturbances never really do. Ultimately unsurprising given the album title, it's the fascinating work of two artists committed to sounding non-committal.