Jim O’Rourke is either a master provocateur or just plain infuriating; it all depends on how you feel about his career as a whole. If you liked his experimental acoustic music with David Grubbs as Gastr Del Sol, you might not have been thrilled with his table-top noise compositions. If you enjoyed his indie-pop albums like Insignificance and Eureka, you might not have appreciated his tenure with Sonic Youth. If you liked his output overall, his hiatus while being Wilco’s go-to producer might have ticked you off. It’s fair to say that you can never be sure what you’ll get from O’Rourke.
When word came down that he was finally recording another album (even though he has been fairly prolific in his side jobs for the intervening eight years, so he has never actually gone away) the immediate impression among the indie-ites was that it would be song-based. They were right (sort of), because his latest, The Visitor, is in fact one song and only one song, lasting near forty minutes. It is not abstract collage or fringe at all; in fact, it’s quite accessible. It’s also completely instrumental. Give with one hand, take with the other.
The Visitor, aside from being one consistent track, acts as a companion piece to his Bad Timing album, also acoustic-rooted and instrumental yet four tracks in length. The flow of the music is that of O’Rourke’s guitar moving into crystalline passages, then getting punctuation from other instruments, then falling back into the guitar. These shifts provide the sense of songs within the piece, but make no mistake about it — this is a single musical statement. Producer O’Rourke gets the best of musician O’Rourke as, around the 19-minute mark, he plays with the piano parts, cutting them digitally to create a staccato, stuttering effect. Laid underneath is a brief electric guitar run, in and out, almost subliminally. Then at 23 minutes in, things subside back into organ wash, acoustic guitar, and it’s on to the next “feel.”
I found the whole of The Visitor hypnotic and often beautiful to listen to, but I can easily see someone finding it tedious. O’Rourke is clearly asking for a lot from his listeners, especially during the stretches of dissonance that pop up from time to time, and yet this still comes across as music versus experiment. Add to that the overall idea of this being a “piece” or a “composition” and the cry from left field sounds like “pretension!” Maybe so, but there was a brief window in the indie music world when post-rockers like O’Rourke, Grubbs, Godspeed You Black Emperor, Rachel’s and a host of others actively sought to bring the trappings of composition to popular music styles, hoping to develop something altogether new.
It didn’t work out that way. The modern indie scene is split between the radicalized punks and the twee poppers, while the post-rock vanguard seems to have diminished. The Visitor then is not so much a return to form as it is a remembrance of what could have been, and because it is so (here’s that word again) accessible, it might also act as an introduction to a wider, and often weirder, world of musical expression.