The Improved Timing of Jim O’Rourke


Who the hell would’ve expected hesitation from Jim O’Rourke—an overachiever with more than 30 recorded works and countless one-off collaborations to his name? Yet his first solo release in eight years, The Visitor, has at least conceptually been in the making since 1997’s Bad Timing, if only in the album art it echoes. The older record’s cover features a floating mirror-ball casting off multicolored arabesques of its environs; now, 12 years later, it’s back to grace this new cover as well, albeit looking a little deflated. Which, thankfully, you can’t necessarily say about O’Rourke himself.  

The former New Yorker and Sonic Youth member (now on his own in Japan) made a quick name for himself by shirking influence and crafting engaging music in the moment, grabbing his guitar and connecting with a who’s-who of European avant-tinkerers, before slowly replacing those challenging tête-à-têtes with more solitary musings. The results, mostly mixed, verged on a bogus purposelessness bereft of unified vision; others were in-joke classical experiments generally only written (and appreciated) by strange men with unruly eyebrows and houses full of cats. 

Over time, though, O’Rourke apparently lost interest in futzing with musique concrète and other such splinter genres, even as he was gaining praise—and notoriety—for his more rambunctious and unmusical music. Terminal Pharmacy, an alternately lulling and jarring “electro-acoustic” 1995 work, used field-recorded audio from a Manhattan block’s worth of cell-phone conversations, sordid and banal details lost in the hiss of a thousand brusquely enunciated New Yorker S’s. Two years later came Bad Timing, his mammoth orchestral masterwork, combining the lush but rootsy acoustic guitars typical of idiomatic Americana with film-score-without-a-film ambience, highbrow and lowbrow references mingling uneasily. 

From there, O’Rourke responded with pure anomaly: two full-lengths (1999’s Eureka, 2001’s Insignificance) and one EP (1999’s Halfway to a Threeway) that alternate between the “easy listening” hyperbole of Gordon Lightfoot and glimpses of the Southern rock typified by Little Feat and Molly Hatchet. O’Rourke took to the genre mash-up with the same alacrity he once applied to marathon sessions of tape-splicing prepared-guitar workouts. Convincing, endearing, and ultimately off-putting, O’Rourke could’ve been a radio-friendly darling had anyone other than insular college DJ’s been aware of him.

Though he didn’t completely lose his taste for experimental technique—if anything, these “pop” records actually emboldened his credentials as an unsung master of derailing subjectivity, often coupling inoffensive sounds with disturbing lyrics. (See/hear Halfway to a Threeway‘s “Fuzzy Sun,” where O’Rourke maintains a poker face while cooing, “A cigarette to brand a baby’s arm/A bit of ash in his face keeps him warm.” Consider, again, the cover illustrations, wherein a balding, naked, obese man covers his genitals with a stuffed bunny rabbit (Eureka) or sits in repose, confined in fuchsia lingerie, a toy duck tied to the leg of his chair (Insignificance). That these records, along with Bad Timing, share titles with three films by cineaste bad-boy Nicolas Roeg is no surprise. 

There is surprise, however, in O’Rourke’s renewed focus on orchestral and Appalachian fare, along with a renewed appreciation for kitschy songcraft—echoes of Rupert Holmes’s “Escape (The Pina Colada Song),” Bruce Hornsby’s “The Way It Is,” and the hilariously overwritten big-band codas to Saturday Night Live episodes all figure mightily in The Visitor. O’Rourke may flirt with academic, meta-compositional notions throughout the record, but such music-theory meddling is best left unexplained, lest it become more banal than it is already.  

He is certainly better at provoking questions through his music than speaking to the headier traditions that the majority of his work indulges in: His short-lived neo-rock quartet, Brise-Glace, was more a punchline than an actual band, writing songs about writing songs, intentionally exaggerating rock ‘n’ roll tropes into utter meaninglessness, and calling into question not only why musicians continue to utilize such empty gestures, but also why listeners continue to expect a certain fullness from them. The coin’s other side, however, is a sort of unabashed reverence for musical authenticity. O’Rourke’s adoration for finger-picking deity John Fahey finds heartfelt tribute in Gastr del Sol’s cover of “Dry Bones in the Valley,” a piece of quintessential American melancholy rendered lovingly by O’Rourke and augmented by compatriot violinist Tony Conrad, who saws a horizon-wide note across the song’s latter half.  

Ponderous stuff, sure, which is exactly why a larger audience was only possible once O’Rourke reconciled his adoration of extremes. After records full of nothing but in-jokes and ennui, The Visitor dispenses with the bullshit. The most immediate analogue here is composer/arranger Jack Nitzsche’s St. Giles Cripplegate, a top-heavy, early-’70s artifact larded with Nitzche’s love for avant-classical icons Anton Webern, Charles Ives, and Erik Satie, the result more a product of the time it was created in than its creator. But O’Rourke learned from Nitzsche’s mistakes: Instead of hamfistedly throwing academic genre exercises at his listeners, he grounds the theoretical in the emotional.

Indulging an expanding series of influences, from Luis Buñuel to Burt Bacharach, The Visitor starts wobbly, but soon spreads out, grounded by minimalist figures and empowered by several motifs that serve to change the piece’s direction over its continually evolving 38 minutes. O’Rourke, a self-proclaimed student of film, is well aware of the power that “incidental music” wields; The Visitor‘s melodramatic and atmospheric suggestion not only provide more presence than lyrics ever could, but also posit O’Rourke as a genuine composer, something St. Giles utterly failed to do for Nitzsche. Throughout the piece, O’Rourke looks both forward and back, coming off as both reflective and hesitant, indirect and direct, all while finding able echo in the cover art: Bad Timing‘s mirror-ball, no longer disembodied, now retired and resting on a chair, half-smashed and sinking into its seat, those mirrored facets only partly intact, with some now littering the floor, but still casting off multicolored arabesques of its environs.