Sounds Heard: Jim O’Rourke—The Visitor
Jim O’Rourke – The Visitor (excerpt)
If you search the internet to purchase a download of the single off of Jim O’Rourke’s new album, The Visitor, you just won’t get it. On so many levels, such a search will leave you empty-handed. With his first “pop” album since 2001’s fantastic Insignificance, O’Rourke has created a modern-day dilemma with his new 38-minute release—it’s available only as one continuous track, and only on CD or LP. So not only would a digital scavenger hunt for catchy singles leave you without any music, but you would not be getting the point behind a release of this depth.
O’Rourke wrote all the music, performed all of the instrumental parts, and recorded The Visitor in his home studio in Tokyo—and the finished product is a mile wide and several miles deep. The initial prospect of a vocal-less O’Rourke album left me a little frustrated. After all, his voice is quite pleasant and his lyrics are usually filled with naughty delights, such as his tale of office cross-dressing in “The Workplace.” But O’Rourke has decided to forgo the narrative threads of some of his earlier albums and let the instruments be the tour guides. Drums, bass, guitars (electric and acoustic), piano, organ, clarinet, banjo, and more steer one montage into the next, via slow transition or direct segue (important side note: according to O’Rourke, there are over 200 tracks on this record).
If your first reaction to the notion of an all-instrumental “pop” album is confusion, you have every right to be apprehensive. Prior experiments by lesser artists have produced results that usually splattered on the “dreadful” and “self-indulgent” parts of the spectrum. But O’Rourke is not a lesser artist: his awareness of minute details and the trump card known as “form” are in perfect balance, and it is because of this that The Visitor becomes more intriguing with every listen. Although it may be indexed as one continuous track, this album harbors variety in spades.
So what does it sound like? Modal melodic fragments telescope via asymmetrical phrasing (recalling his earlier work with one of my favorites, Gastr del Sol), and pivot into new fields of harmony and orchestrations. The simplest of gestures is fodder for dramatic reconfiguration via harmonic modulation, pulse, or timbre. Tempos accelerate and then pause to reflect. The haunting echoes of a campfire melody shift on the dime to become a frolicking shuffle. There is ample groove to be found along with amorphous, pulse-less breakdowns (a stunning example of which begins almost fourteen minutes in and drones into a mood one might find on an Animal Collective tune). In fact, there are so many different scenes in this movie, it can feel like it is unfolding anew with every listen.
For those who need an immediate list of “sounds like”, there are hints of the Americana of Neil Young, tippings-of-the-hat to John Fahey and Derek Bailey, subdued overdriven guitar leads a la Steely Dan/ELO/the ’70s, and even post-minimalist textures that aren’t too far removed from that Reich fellow. Despite the preponderance of modal structures and diatonic progressions, there is never a lack of color on the canvas. In fact, some of the more expansive, amorphous scenes are unabashedly chromatic. But the influences one might glean are fleeting; there is no denying that O’Rourke synthesizes his various loves into his own language, but the resulting amalgamation is something distinctly his own.
If you aren’t sold on this record yet, I would like to make a bold statement: you should buy it solely because Jim O’Rourke engineered it. The Visitor is sonically divine, a fact that should come as no surprise to fans of earlier O’Rourke recordings. Each individual instrument is allowed to breathe, and each layer provides the right support for every other one. If there must be one recent album to serve as an example of how glorious recorded instruments can be, The Visitor gets my vote.
Jim O’Rourke has worn many hats: producer, engineer, singer/songwriter, film scorer, laptop tweaker, and noise conjurer. Listening to his records makes it all the more evident that he loves many different kinds of music and that he possesses a unique perspective on the history of style and longevity of substance. This vantage point is why The Visitor appears and leaves like a succession of ghosts, as if the musical spirits that inspire and influence O’Rourke are floating by and then vaporizing. I find an album of this nature to be incredibly powerful and important right now.
The front cover of The Visitor is a picture of a lone disco ball that seems to be melting on a chair. The back shows an empty chair and mirrored shards on the ground. Maybe these images were just something that O’Rourke liked to look at—or maybe they are an allegory to the dangerously fragmented consciousness of the bits-and-bytes human. And maybe the continuous stream that is The Visitor is some sort of antidote to post-post-modernist decay.
Jeremy Podgursky is a composer/songwriter/performer based in Louisville, KY. For more info about Jeremy and his music, visit his website.