After a minute of deliberate, restrained acoustic guitar phrases accompanied with a few touches of piano, Jim O’Rourke’s The Visitor unfolds suddenly into a warm, rich, full-band arrangement, humming with sinewy slide guitars and clippety-clop percussion. For ten short, gorgeous seconds, O’Rourke declares that, after having made listeners wait for over a decade for a follow up to his brilliant instrumental suite Bad Timing, he won’t delay the magic any longer. After those ten seconds, the music returns to that solitary guitar, but just a minute later, the full band is back again, establishing a rhythm that will permeate the disc.
Space, delay, and restraint have long been some of O’Rourke’s sharpest tools: fans of Bad Timing can attest to the sublime payoff in the record’s final moments, and his work in Gastr del Sol with David Grubbs often challenged audiences’ patience, rewarding them in oblique moments of beauty too strange to name. Not that O’Rourke’s music is wholly strange–in fact, I can’t think of another musician who makes recordings sound so damn good. He has an almost preternatural gift for sonic spaces, whether as a solo artist or as a producer (and auxiliary member) of groups like Stereolab and The High Llamas (or more obscure acts like Wilco and Sonic Youth). In short, we expect that a Jim O’Rourke record (a “proper” one–not one of his (many, many) forays into experimental/improvisational collaboration) will sound really fucking good. In this sense, The Visitor isn’t particularly revelatory: it’s a great-sounding, expertly-played, 38-minute suite of music. It affirms what we know about O’Rourke, and leaves us wanting more.
For a record with such a unified sound and vision, The Visitor is also paradoxically all over the place. It’s one complete track, at least in digital form, and while there are clearly discrete passages, it’s nearly impossible to find where they might distinctly begin or end. Unlike its most obvious predecessor, Bad Timing, an album divided into four tracks, there are no seams showing here. Neither is there any reliance on electronic trickery or production shenanigans (which O’Rourke followers know he could pull off standing on his head). The Visitor is pure musicianship, full of resonant organs, lovely acoustic guitars, and a host of other instruments in the Americana vein that O’Rourke so clearly cherishes (it’s impossible not to hear nods to heroes of his like Van Dyke Parks and John Fahey here, of course). There are amazing moments, like at 11:25 or so when O’Rourke channels Dickey Betts for a killer micro-solo, or does a Brian May send-up at 20:40. There are woodwinds, there are banjos, there are instruments working together that I cannot identify. And it all sounds very, very good.
Undoubtedly, The Visitor will have its detractors. Unlike O’Rourke’s 1999 pop masterpiece Eureka, it is not an album of songs to know and love; neither is it remotely close to 2001’s more aggressive Insignificance. It is, as I’ve stated a few times now, a single suite of instrumental music, perhaps too pleasant for some or too weird for others. And while I’m very enthusiastic about it–I’ve listened to it about 25 times over the past three days–I admit that it also whets my appetite for a follow-up to O’Rourke’s more pop-oriented records. I’d love to hear the guy’s imperfect voice sing those mean, mean lyrics again. And I hope he won’t make us wait another eight years for one. Final verdict: buy The Visitor, listen to it, love it.
Jim O’Rourke’s The Visitor is available September 8th, 2009 from Drag City (who will mail it to you postage-paid for a mere $14 vinyl, $12 CD) or your favorite record store.