The Time Out London review of Insignificance, Nicholas Roeg’s 1985 adaptation of a British stage play that imagined what would happen if Marilyn Monroe, Joe McCarthy, Joe DiMaggio, and Albert Einstein spent the sweltering summer night together in a New York hotel room, concludes by saying “It may be a chamber piece, but its circumference is vast.” Coincidentally, that nutshell of a critical analysis could happily pull double duty as a descriptor of Jim O’Rourke’s Insignificance, his 2001 album of literal "chamber" pop songs that nicked its title from Roeg’s comedy.
Let's not get too far ahead of ourselves though, since you might be in need of a brief introduction to Jim O’Rourke, someone you almost undoubtedly already know, but don’t know it. His fingerprints as a mixer and / or producer are all over albums by Wilco, Stereolab, Joanna Newsom, and Superchunk, among dozens of others. Besides his work behind the boards, Discogs lists him as the main artist for over 90 albums over the past 25 years. He was a full fledged member of Sonic Youth for two albums, Sonic Nurse and Murray Street, both of which were claimed by many to mark their “return to form”. Imagine: Sonic Youth saying to someone “Hi, we’re Sonic Youth. We’ve been this incredible band for almost two decades now, but what we’re missing is YOU!” Crazy right? That’s how good Jim O’Rourke is, but he’s still a fairly unknown musician for a lot of people. Hopefully this intro to only one aspect of his creative output will change that for you.
Earlier this year, O’Rourke released the album Simple Songs, an album that stupified one reviewer into posing the hypothetical question "How could someone be this gifted as both a pop and an avant-garde artist – as if Brian Wilson could make Merzbow records in his spare time?" Simple Songs is the latest in the increasingly seldom-released “pop” albums that he puts out on Drag City Records,a lineage that goes all the way back to 1997 with Bad Timing’s quartet of instrumental tracks, only one of which was under 10 minutes long and even that was only by 20 seconds. Bad Timing was the first of three albums of his to crib its name from a Roeg film, followed by Eureka (1999), the 4-song EP Halfway to a Threeway (2000), and Insignificance (2001), all of which trimmed song lengths down to a manageable size and added lyrics, the content of which we’ll get into a little later. After those albums released in relatively quick succession, there were 5 or so years until we got The Visitor. While not directly named for a Roeg film, The Visitor does share its title with the album recorded by David Bowie’s alien character in Roeg’s The Man Who Fell To Earth, so the Roeg through-line is kinda-sorta kept intact! Since it’s one more or less unbroken 40-minute instrumental work (discounting having to flip the record, of course), The Visitor is a spiritually closer to Bad Timing than any of the other albums mentioned above, but it has a lot more musical depth to it, with some movements of the untitled track amassing over 200 simultaneous musical elements. Structurally, Simple Songs goes back to the same format of Insignificance, with songs short enough to possibly even get radio airplay in some awesome alternate reality where albums by O'Rourke would top the charts.
“With the Drag City stuff, if you look closely, there's a kind of visual algebra that’s formed, in a quiet but clear way, between all the records, starting withBad Timing.” - JO
While each album within the collection of O’Rourke’s Drag City records more or less has its own clearly conceived aesthetic goals and boundaries, there are smaller identifiable subsections that are worth squinting at from a distance. The two that can most easily be seen as flip sides of a the same coin would be Eureka and Insignificance. Both have album covers and other artwork by Japanese underground comic artist Mimiyo Tomozawa (about whom there is so little info on the internet that even her fan pages have “gossip” sections) and both do this weird thing where the cover on the front is exactly replicated on the back. Sure, for a 12” vinyl record this isn’t so weird, but for the CD releases the back cover is an exact replica of the front, right down to the black bit of tray liner that sticks out on the left hand side, which is more disorienting to hold in your hands and flip from front to back than you might expect.
For real though, the covers for these two albums in particular are insane, and wonderful, and disturbing, and oddly childlike all at once. Eureka features an older Japanese man, fully nude, holding a bunny to his crotch, on a soft pink background. Is it a stuffed bunny? Is it, or... was it... a real live bunny? Put the record on and the first song, while hopefully you’re holding the album in your hands, flipping it from front to back and back again, slowly fades into the lyrics “Women of the world take over / 'Cause if you don't the world will come to an end / And it won't take long” which, over the years, have been appropriated from Ivor Cutler by more than a few folks. Where the grandfatherly gentleman on Eureka’s cover is lost in a moment of inter-bestial bliss, the man on Insignificance’s cover is looking right at you, as if to say, “Yeah man, this is me doing the thing that I do, and this here is my little toy duck that’s tied up so he doesn’t roll away.” The inner sleeve is possibly the strangest image of them all, with another elderly man being mounted by... is that an octopus?! Is the animal world seeking its revenge from what happened on the cover of Eureka?! Maybe! Each of these two albums also features a poster, both of which are worth framing.
The two most recent albums, The Visitor and Simple Songs, are also seemingly aesthetically connected, with foregrounded subjects lit only with harsh red and green light while ominously surrounded by inky blackness. They give you the creeps a little, like maybe you just stumbled into a meeting of local mob bosses, all of whom happen to be very much into the spirit of Christmas? O’Rourke has said that Simple Songs is something of a sequel to Insignificance, both lyrically and musically but, even though he’s clearly happy to repeat tropes in his packaging, there’s nothing in the art that would lead you to believe that Simple Songs is looking all too far backwards. There is no easy solution, it turns out, to the puzzle that the covers and film-referencing titles present, but it feels like there are just enough consistency to the clues that maybe it’ll come together in some way eventually. My take is that these albums amount to some sort of Drag City Dark Carnival and your eyes will be opened to the truth only when that final Joker-card of a Jim O’Rourke pop-album drops, but then again what do I know...
“Usually I would have spent more time mixing. But either I accepted the way it was now or I was going to throw it away. And in the end I decided to just accept the things I didn’t like. There’s no record I made that I’m fully happy with.” - JO
Of all these great albums, the one I come back to the most is Insignificance. I just cannot shake songs like "Get A Room", which asks the listener to think of who they'd spend their last night with, but the person they/you choose ends up falling asleep. The song outright mocks them/you in your final mortal moments before leaving you to exasperatedly expire: "You sure picked a winner / And time's seeming slower / And now you can't see her / All you see is a timer / Moving backwards and forwards / And the night's getting longer / And your skin's getting colder..." There's a beautiful lyrical nihilism to these otherwise gorgeous songs, stripping the listener of any defenses they might have built up against the creeping coldness of existential dread.
The title song ends, almost cheerfully, with "It's never too late / To start to regret Every step / You've taken / Every word / You've said". It's exactly the sort of restless and self-critical thing you'd expect from a guy who said "I can’t imagine what sort of weird hell people who are satisfied with their own work [experience]. That’s a special kind of hell I can’t imagine. What kind of life is that?"