What can you say about Jim O’Rourke’s music that he hasn’t already said in it himself?
This is not to say O’Rourke’s albums are full of self-laudatory liner notes or even printed copies of the lyrics he chooses to mix so low. The past three full-length O’Rourke CD releases on Drag City have had relatively similar packaging: sparse – lacking even a track listing – and the same cover art on the front and back. Except not quite. Cleverly, O’Rourke has reprinted the entire front of the CD on the back, including the black vertical strip on the left and the indentations on the jewel case that hold the liner notes in place. Eureka and the new Insignificance both hold absolutely perfect artwork by Mimiyo Tomozawa, whose paintings seem absolutely impossible to find in the United States, except for the O’Rourke releases. Other similarities? All three full-lengths are named after Nic Roeg films and certainly contain Roeg-ian elements (it seems funny that on the title track of Eureka, O’Rourke seems to implement the high pitches/hearing disorientation heard by David Bowie’s character in Roeg’s The Man Who Fell to Earth, and one should perhaps take notice of the more obvious apocalyptic lyrical and musical references on Insignificance). The cover art to Eureka involves a man shoving a stuffed animal in his crotch, while the cover of the follow-up EP, Halfway to a Threeway is a stuffed animal. Halfway to a Threeway, Eureka, and Insignificance, all contain a tiny cartoon animal head related to each album’s respective theme, perhaps a joke on the use of a single dot on the final two Gastr Del Sol albums (Jim O’Rourke’s previous Drag City project), and perhaps I’ve spent too much time trying to synch Dark Side of the Moon with The Wizard of Oz.
The clever references to past albums is not limited to art direction, of course. O’Rourke 1995 release on Tzadik, Terminal Pharmacy, certainly borrows from more than one of his previous electro-acoustic compositions, and is specifically described as a culmination of his musique-concrete work up to that point. O’Rourke’s instrumental Bad Timing was followed by Eureka, the opening track of which begins in a similar style to the previous album until flooded by less-than-subtle synthesizer and strong, polemical vocals. Insignificance starts with a hard rock drum-lead in, followed by heavy guitar riffs before moving back to a distinctly soft pop bridge, a la Eureka, perhaps another attempt to elbow the listener in the ribs a little bit.
These self-referential jokes are only a fraction of the listening experience, however. O’Rourke’s work is sufficient in itself, yet able to be read on an incredibly wide range of levels. While perhaps not the first musician to critique music and musicianship with music, be it Sparks or Van Dyke Parks, O’Rourke doesn’t make much of an effort to conceal his points of reference. With Insignificance, O’Rourke’s continues to provide a historical lens to popular music, playing with expectations and reinforcing contradictions that exist in so much of it.
O’Rourke’s most recent albums seemed to involve a major interest in assaulting the clichéd sentiments in pop music. Soft melodies and professional balladry that work in opposition to sarcastic and frustrated lyrics pervaded both Eureka and Halfway to a Threeway and make up essentially half of Insignificance on the tracks “Get A Room,” “Life Goes Off,” and “Good Times” (which contains much of the same instrumentation implemented on the Bad Timing release, sans those horns used in the fantastic finale). This time around, however, O’Rourke seems to be attempting a new approach towards his slightly skewed pop theme and seemingly making something more emotional. “All Downhill From Here” and “Therefore I Am” are amazing fuck-off anthems, and not devoid of the bravado and ego of overdriven guitar and antagonistic lyrics. “Don’t believe a word I say” are the first words from Insignificance, and the phrase certainly embodies the persistent paradoxes that O’Rourke thrives on. “Therefore I Am” resounds with a chorus consisting of a Groucho Marx one-liner. “Memory Lane” begins with the perfect execution of “It’s quite a gamble to speak out of place/those things could kill you/but so could your face,” the first two phrases sung with vocal overdubs and the final phrase without any. There are no characters, political inclinations, or real reasoning in O’Rourke’s insults, they are directed at “you” and are completely vicious.
Insignificance seems like something particularly sincere for the man who implemented an absurdly dramatic tongue-in-cheek saxophone solo on his last full-length. “Good Times” is strikingly beautiful and emotional for a song that starts with the line “I may be dressed like a doctor, dear/but I’m not.” “Get A Room” is absolutely heartbreaking for a song dealing with whom one would pick to sleep with if only given a single night left on earth. In an article published shortly before the release of Eureka, O’Rourke discusses his experiments dissecting musical signifiers that have been used for so long that their original intention has been lost. He cites Nine Inch Nails as an example, for their predilection towards “spooky” sounds that truly have no intrinsic “spookiness.” On Insignificance, he continues his explorations at the root of American pop music, clearly displaying his understanding and mastery of its gestures, and just as importantly, getting to their essence.
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