Jim O' Rourke - The Visitor
Pardon the archaic suggestion, but if you've opened a physical copy of Jim O'Rourke's return to glory, The Visitor, you'll understand that it's a demanding release even before you've heard its introductory trace of acoustic guitar. Indeed, if you're legally listening to your own edition of The Visitor, then you're holding either a compact disc or an LP. Whether for reasons of sound quality, tradition, or both, O'Rourke and Drag City forewent an mp3 release of his new album. You have to, like, pick it up. And inside, on the minimal liner notes, O'Rourke makes his second demand: "Please listen on speakers, loud," he entreats, as if now recording under the name Jimm O))). In the end, these prerequisites presage The Visitor, a unified 38-minute instrumental piece that plays hide-and-go-seek with dozens of instruments, textures, and motifs before refusing to deliver the climax you might have expected. An arrogant pop record, The Visitor's intricate, long-form composition rewards repeated close listens through its own insistence on subtlety and craft.
Calling The Visitor a pop record is as much of a stretch as it is a reduction, but it's an important distinction to make here. Despite his involvement with well over 100 albums in the past two decades, The Visitor is just the fifth in a string of highly accessible if equally nuanced O'Rourke releases on Drag City. That series began in 1997 with the rustic instrumental Bad Timing and, until now, ended with 2001's rock opus, Insignificance. Along with Eureka and the EP Halfway to a Threeway, that quartet offered listeners easier inroads to O'Rourke, especially relative to his noise or improvised output, the textural radiance of Gastr del Sol or the kitchen-sink compositions of Brise-Glace. But they weren't your average pop records, either: Bad Timing twisted parochial roots music ideas into a gorgeous four-track cycle, while Halfway to a Threewaypaired instrumental elegance and emotional ruefulness in four nearly clinical tunes. Throughout, O'Rourke moved just as deliberately as he'd later move on the long-form laptop record, I'm Happy and I'm Singing and a 1, 2, 3, 4, or with drone masters Tony Conrad and Faust on Outside the Dream Syndicate Alive. Bad Timing, for instance, built for nearly 40 minutes before horns and steel guitar ricocheted against each other like pinballs. And on the wry Insignificance, he'd often open a stanza with a happy sentiment just to present the blade beneath the cloth as conclusion. With O'Rourke, patience is more necessity than virtue. on The Visitor, it is an absolute.
Offering a play-by-play guide to The Visitor, an album that O'Rourke says required over 200 separate recorded parts, would be tedious at best, but a few qualities deserve notice: The Visitorfeels polite and dainty, perhaps to a fault. Much of its music, all made by O'Rourke alone in Tokyo, isn't unique or overly complicated, in that one could easily find a guitarist, organist, drummer, banjo picker, and guitarist to play the bulk of this album as a band. As with most of O'Rourke's pop output, you could imagine these ideas on any stock singer-songwriter or Sunday afternoon jazz record. In that way, though, The Visitor is a perfect gestalt, where the connections between the elements and their sum are more important than any one instant. O'Rourke links the melodies across instruments, letting a piano mirror a guitar, adjusting one slightly either by changing its meter or letting it slip away from the melody and into the next variation. Such shifts pull the whole into the next phase, maintaining nothing if not constant motion. Rather than sudden payoffs, The Visitorfavors careful, minute shifts that amass over its runtime. To that end, there's no big, terminal peak. Sure, the second half springs forward with a bouncy banjo lick, and the drums, pedal steel and piano dance around each other near the track's end. But, true to its name, as soon as The Visitor begins to lean too heavily toward cerebral textures or more visceral moments, it quickly pushes in the other direction. When the action rises, know that there's always something subdued one groove over.
Such a plan works because, from the acoustic guitars that mix O'Rourke's heroes Derek Bailey and John Fahey to the bright electric guitar leads that suggest Electric Light Orchestra or the Doobie Brothers, every moment here is pristinely recorded and carefully mixed. As with Joanna Newsom's Ys and Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, two masterpieces O'Rourke mixed this decade, each layer sits in its perfectly defined space. Each gesture rings clearly. But these parts are written so that they blend across those spaces, in effect creating a collage without seams. We hear every sound, but we never hear them without the benefit of their accompaniment.
Given its patient development and refusal to climax, The Visitorruns the risk of being labeled boring and bland. Given its use of common instruments and techniques (a cymbal scraped with a drumstick constitutes the album's most "out" sound), it runs a high risk of being labeled pedestrian, too, as if O'Rourke has taken all of his experimental tendencies and finally reduced them into an adult-contemporary instrumental. Ultimately, that's about as silly as it sounds: The Visitor is a defiant record in both sound and spirit. The reluctance of O'Rourke and Drag City to release The Visitoras a digital download, for instance, rebels against our need for instant gratification. You have to work a bit to hear it. Symbolically, it's a potent act for such an anticipated release, even if bit torrents, RapidShare, and the ilk mean it's little more than a symbol. And O'Rourke's request that you listen out loud, loudly, means that you give it your attention, that you let it fill the room with sound. After all, this is soft music-- and graceful and complicated and rich, too. While it might sound polite, though, it's not to be heard passively during your morning walk to work.
That's because, in the end, The Visitor is a one-man show that refuses to be selfish. It eschews spotlight moments and elides our need to be greedy, to be fed captivation. After a decade of bands exclaiming it all in five minutes (The Arcade Fire, MGMT, this list never stops) and a season of bands getting Internet famous with 40 minutes of output where the tape hiss is to my ears more interesting than the songs (Wavves, Vivian Girls, will this list stop soon?), it's redeeming to hear something deliver such development and depth. These 38 meticulously prepared minutes offer dozens of memorable moments. They just demand that you listen.
Grayson Currin, September 18, 2009