Jim O’Rourke – The Visitor (Drag City) LP
Throughout the ’90s, Jim O’Rourke was a ubiquitous presence in experimental music and underground rock. He began by prowling the hinterlands of free improv, dark ambient and noise. Gradually, via his membership in David Grubbs’ deconstructionist rock band Gastr Del Sol, he came to the attention of the indie rock cognoscenti. Eventually, he was given the highest honour imaginable, becoming a fully-fledged member of Sonic Youth.
What really built O’Rourke’s personal fan-base, though, was the series of solo albums he made for Chicago’s Drag City label. These records came cloaked in cover art which ranged from the cloyingly cute to the grotesquely pornographic (occasionally encompassing both aesthetics simultaneously) and were – more often than not – named after Nicolas Roeg films.
The music itself was an odd – but timely and highly effective – mish-mash of folky-Americana, West Coast pop, progressive rock, digital electronica and easy listening. Some of the albums were instrumental but others – notably O’Rourke’s masterpiece Eureka – came topped off with astoundingly bitter and misanthropic lyrics, sung in his faltering, unassuming little voice.
In 2001, he released Insignificance, which was simultaneously his most conventional rock album and his most lyrically unpleasant assault on the human race. It was great and sold like hot cakes. After the release of Insignificance, O’Rourke moved to Japan and slimmed down his musical activities to virtually nil.
Which brings us to The Visitor, his long-awaited new solo full-length. It’s a folky, instrumental effort, along the lines of Bad Timing (the connection is made explicit by the fact that both albums feature images of disco balls on their covers). Though split across two sides of vinyl, it’s essentially one long composition, which O’Rourke has quite possibly been labouring over for these last eight years.
Side one initially seems none too engaging. It’s full of rather ponderous, rhythmically complex, finger-picked acoustic guitar. The tone is relentlessly melodic and there are no electronics or dissonances to add edge. At times, you fear that O’Rourke is in danger of slipping into the technically clever but aesthetically vapid worlds of third-tier prog rock and lite jazz fusion.
Things start to make sense as side two picks up the pace, adding some loose improv drumming and dissonant piano parts. By the end of the composition, everything has resolved in a most satisfying fashion. Listen again, with some knowledge of the musical road-map and you’ll find the whole journey extremely pleasurable.
So, while not outwardly challenging, The Visitor is clearly a record that demands full engagement. On the cover, O’Rourke asks that we listen to it “on speakers, loud”. He’s also refused to have the album released in MP3 format, presumably feeling that the loss of audio fidelity will dull the sharp edges of his precision sound mix. Good for him. Sorry for posting digital extracts.
Still, The Visitor remains a somewhat enigmatic release that may leave you wondering exactly what Jim O’Rourke is getting at. Perhaps those Roeg-inspired album titles provide a clue. O’Rourke has claimed that, while music is what he does, cinema is what he loves. The concept of “imaginary soundtracks” may be somewhat played out but it’s hard not to think of The Visitor as the soundtrack to a cinematic masterpiece O’Rourke might have dreamed, if he’d been chosen for that particular vocation.
See – or rather hear – for yourself. Buy The Visitor from Drag City.