It came as something of a surprise the other day to discover that it’s been something like eight years since Jim O’Rourke released a new solo album. In the interim, he’s not been entirely quiet, as involvement with Sonic Youth and the Loose Fur project with Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche, as well as sundry other lower-profile activities prove.
Around the time he left Sonic Youth, however, a story began to circulate that O’Rourke had moved to Japan and retired from music-making. As it turns out, only the first part of the rumour was true, as this excellent interview points out; perhaps, after so much intensive work over the preceding decade or so, he just needed a break.
“The Visitor” is his wonderful, though perhaps predictably eccentric, return to action. Unlike the tightly formed rock songs of “Insignificance”, “The Visitor” consists of one unravelling 38-minute instrumental piece, harking back to the textures of 1997’s “Bad Timing”, or perhaps a vast cousin to “Ghost Ship In A Storm” from “Eureka”.
It begins much in the style of “Bad Timing”, with a John Fahey-ish guitar figure; later, elements of the piece are as reminiscent of late-period Fahey (“Red Cross”, notably) as the more canonical earlier work. Soon, though, the music opens up and surges forward, as O’Rourke keeps trying out different combinations of instruments, as if trying to find a harmonious way of synthesising at least some of his massively eclectic musical interests.
At times, then, it recalls a kind of folk symphony, a heavenly realisation of modern composition rescored for Laurel Canyon habitués. Picking out a bunch of possible reference points, I’m reminded of ‘70s Grateful Dead (“Weather Report Suite”, perhaps), Van Dyke Parks’ “Song Cycle” (a big O’Rourke favourite, I seem to remember), the Takoma pianist George Winston.
Often, when the simple theme starts to gather momentum, O’Rourke pulls away from the meticulous arrangements and introduces a kind of loose punctuation, where the music is pensive and hesitant; hovering somewhere between minimalist composition and improv. It’s a measure of O’Rourke’s multi-disciplinary skills and sleight-of-hand that it’s tricky to tell how, exactly, “The Visitor” has been constructed: as a studio collage of part-arranged, part-improvised fragments; as a formal whole; or, as I suspect, some intangible hybrid of both .
Whatever, it’s full of beautiful and engrossing music, and doubtless plenty of musical jokes and references that I’m not learned enough to spot – though I should say that O’Rourke’s expansive gifts of melody, arrangement and production make this a warm and rewarding listen even if you’ve only a fraction of his musical knowledge. Favourite bits this morning: a brief flutter of prog rock guitar, which sharply fades away to reveal a banjo moving artfully in its tracks; and a lush passage about 12 minutes in where the piano and Hammond combine in a way that wouldn’t shame Richard Manuel and Garth Hudson. A lot to take in here, though.