, September 1st, 2009 08:19
With a contrariness befitting a man of his eccentric reputation, Chicago musician, producer and all-round renaissance man Jim O'Rourke has chosen to announce his return from an eight-year solo hiatus with an instrumental record comprising one 38-minute-long track. Great news for fans; not such good news for reviewers attempting to relay the unfurling intricacies and delicate nuances of this extraordinary piece of music. Recorded in his adopted home city of Tokyo, The Visitor is a bold and expansive opus which has illustrious precedents in the Beach Boys' lost masterpiece Smile, Van Dyke Parks' Song Cycle, and more recently high concept art pop albums such as The High Llamas' lushly panoramic Hawaii. The instrumental in rock music has tended to be consigned to either the incidental interlude or an outlet for outré experimentalism, yet this album reveals itself as both profound and surprisingly accessible.
The significance of the title should not be overlooked: the previous three O'Rourke records proper (Bad Timing, Eureka, Insignificance), have all been named after Nicolas Roeg films, and there's speculation that this album's title may be a sly nod to that director's The Man Who Fell To Earth, in which David Bowie's space alien records an album under the name The Visitor. Allowing a more literal interpretation, the title also lends itself to the notion of the music soundtracking an interplanetary odyssey, the meandering score evoking the wildly conflicting emotions of an outsider experiencing the shock of the new. And if this all sounds a bit 70s prog for your sensitive palate, than rest assured: the music is the usual genre-hopping melange of organic and electronic influences. The first 15 minutes alone encompass alt country, pastoral electronica, banjo-flavoured bluegrass and Gershwin-era jazzy flourishes, demonstrating a more eclectic oeuvre than most artists manage to fit in during an entire career.
The loose progression through musical episodes is punctuated by occasional lulls in the tempo, creating the impression of a neo-classical symphony whose orchestrated movements build to a crescendo before fading abruptly, to be replaced by another. There are recurring fragments of melodies and syncopated rhythms which serve as leitmotifs, giving the record its rich thematic cohesion and structure. Echoes of previous songs in the O'Rourke cannon abound, from hints of the folksy whimsy of 'Ghost Ship In A Storm' to snatches of the loungey exuberance which made his cover of the Bacharach standard 'Something Big' such an infectious joy. Elsewhere, you can hear traces of the taut rock rhythms that characterised Insignificance. But the record this most closely resembles — and indeed is conceived as a sequel to, of sorts — is 1997's Bad Timing, where abstract riffs were allowed to gradually evolve into clear, vibrant melodies. That said, The Visitor stands out from any of O'Rourke's previous work in terms of sheer scope and ambition: it's perhaps his most fully-realised, surprising and audacious record to date.
I won't deny that there's a part of me that misses O'Rourke's distinctively languid vocals — so weightless and enigmatically opaque on his rendition of Ivor Cutler's Women of the World — but there's simply so much going on here at any one point that you don't find yourself dwelling on it for long. Despite his esoteric influences and formidable sense of musicianship, O'Rourke is aware of the importance of making music that appeals to the heart as well as the head, which prevents this from becoming an exercise in muso self-indulgence. Rather, The Visitor is a soaring and vividly evocative tour de force which reveals hidden delights with each new listen: it has an eloquence, fluency and boundless invention which speaks beyond words.