Last I heard, Jim O’Rourke had sadly given up on recorded music entirely to pursue a steady film career. How I cried, how I wept. The Chicago musician/producer is behind a number of my very favorite albums – from his work with Stereolab in the 90s to Sonic Youth’s brilliant album Murray Street, and dozens of other solo recordings and collaborations in between. I never even saw one of Jim’s films (maybe out of spite), and when he officially left Sonic Youth a few years ago, I had all but given up hope on the man. Then, like some beautiful miracle, Drag City issued O’Rourke’s first album in over eight years just this week. Every once in a while, no matter how hard this world beats you down, no matter how crummy the economy gets, no matter how overwhelming life can seem – there will always be a glimmer of hope. This week it comes in the form of an orchestral-pop masterwork by one of today’s true authorities. He calls it ‘The Visitor.’
There’s not a lot of information to be gathered on Jim O’Rourke’s newest album from its face value. There’s no singing of lyrics, making the record’s theme a bit of a puzzle. There is but a single page of liner notes on the sleeve of the record printed in a rippled white/grey font on a black background, making some words nearly impossible to read. There are no official track titles (the album is basically a single, 38-minute piece split between two sides of the record) and though there’s a list of folks who helped and played, there are no specific instrument credits, which is surprising given the album’s huge range of live instrumentation. There isn’t even a title on the front of the jacket – just simply the Visitor’s beautiful cover image.
There is one truly revealing line to be found in the packaging, however. On the liner notes, towards the bottom of the page, and you have to kind of squint to see it, reads the humble instruction: “please listen on speakers, loud.”
And that’s it. That sums it up. After eight years of patient waiting for a new record to surface from him, fans are reintroduced to an O’Rourke who chooses to keep his profile low, and his musical drama high. “What have I been doing this whole time? Oh nothing, playing bass in Sonic Youth, helping Wilco out with two amazing records, making films, all that stuff. Whatever, it doesn’t matter. Crank this shit.” And doing so will not disappoint. At a high volume, the subtleties of the Visitor’s beautifully arranged woodwinds and horns reveals a music that shimmers and vibrates with life. To place the needle, turn up your volume dial and bathe in this album’s warm glow is a glorious thing to do in 2009.
Side one of the Visitor wastes no time. The piece begins very subtly with just a rubato acoustic guitar theme (a theme that will return throughout the piece), but within 30 seconds instruments are layered on top – first piano, slide guitar, and bass, then finally drums roll together into a sweeping, grandiose waltz before the song suddenly stops on a dime and returns back to the piece’s acoustic roots. It’s a striking and telling moment for the piece as a whole, especially this early on, really setting the tone for how the music will eventually progress and unfold. It feels almost as though O’Rourke caught himself giving it away too early. It’s a technique that comes off as O’Rourke’s fuzzy image does – it’s shy, coy, smart, controlled, collected, self-conscious, kind of funny, and leaves you desperately wanting more.
And more is what patient listening delivers. From there, the record unveils its cyclical structure of sprout, bloom, sun-soak, molt, die, repeat. Like the seasonal changes, it’s a volatile musical landscape with soaring highs, rolling plateaus, and crashing lows. It’s a record of both cinematic high-drama, and self-effacing wit and acceptance. Sections of music grow up into shimmering climaxes of pure joy and ecstasy before waning into cold and wintery modal ambience – a mood of sadness and reflection that dominates side two.
Aside from the wonderful compositional technique and style O’Rourke has executed here, he’s also done a fine job of merely recording the album, and surrounding himself with astounding musicianship. In fact, you’ll be hard-pressed to find a better sounding album all year. The drumming, for example, is phenomenal. As he has in the past, O’Rourke recruited the best in the business, Wilco’s own Glenn Kotche. Kotche’s drums are tightly tuned (with a soft, round bass drum and crisp but mellow snare) and expertly played. There are street-style sambas and linear, textural comping improvisations dotting the Visitor’s expansive sound.
Furthermore, every tone – from its fluttering flutes, to the warm, full brass – on the record sounds like it was given its own careful set of considerations and personal space. So although the ensemble of the album’s orchestration is seamless, each instrument is unique unto itself. Thus, with several listens, the album provides a different, equally rewarding experience as beautiful new layers are revealed over time.
The Visitor as a whole is everything O’Rourke fans have come to expect – a sparkling-clean sounding album who’s beauty is at times quite simply breathtaking. However, its one-track structure makes it almost too easy to digest. There’s meat here to chew on, but not nearly enough. It’s a return that is therefore both rewarding and fulfilling while also slightly empty and hollow-feeling. If this is all we get after eight years of patient waiting, after all, O’Rourke must be joking if he thinks this will tie us over for another stretch. Its autobiographical use of his previous styles in earlier works does affirm the fact that Jim O’Rourke was, and here continues to be, one of the most important voices in modern music. If only he spoke up more than once a half-decade. But this only begs the question… if he did, would it still sound this sweet?