In the world’s largest independent record store, you’ll find his music in the experimental section. Amoeba Music in Hollywood, CA may not trust Jim O’Rourke’s ability to translate into a musician with mass appeal, but his lush masterpiece Eureka (1999) has enough charm to figure prominently as one of the most expansive pop music projects of the past 20 years.
O’Rourke’s specialty is eclecticism, and that’s probably why Amoeba chose to defer, rather than designate, his genre. O’Rourke has helped reinvigorate the career of folk scion John Fahey, led Sonic Youth through one of their more coherent iterations, and made a pass at minimalism with Happy Days (1997). As a producer and mixer, O’Rourke has contributed to a patchwork of stellar albums, including Wilco’s A Ghost Is Born (2004) and Joanna Newsom’s Ys (2006), as well as Nunki (2006) by Kahimi Karie.
O’Rourke’s eclecticism is on full display in Eureka. More than Insignificance (2001), O’Rourke’s ode to Neil Young and Fleetwood Mac, Eureka claims a genre-bending fluidity, shifting from ambient to lounge as seamlessly as it shifts from folk to jazz. “Please Patronize Our Sponsors,” the album’s interlude, is a good example. O’Rourke coaxes a jaunty, loungy feel out of the early going before switching to prairie folk, using piano throughout. This reads a lot more vexing than it sounds. In fact, O’Rourke’s medleys feel so polished and inevitable that the listener is often unaware of the genre changes when they happen. And so Burt Bacharach and Aaron Copeland, the unlikeliest of musical confederates, give context to a single song. O’Rourke is accomplished enough a musician and competent enough an historian to pull off such a playful salute.
Bacharach is an appropriate leitmotif for this album. O’Rourke covers two songs in Eureka. One of them is “Women of the World,” by Ivor Cutler; the other is the Bacharach tune “Something Big.” O’Rourke’s cover of Bacharach is symphonic but straightforward: he fleshes out the horns and strings, adding serious sass to the all-female chorus. And when he’s not covering Bacharach, O’Rourke is channeling him. “Ghost Ship in a Storm” and “Through the Night Softly” both pay tribute to Bacharach, incorporating fuzzy pop and jazz stylings while avoiding any noxious interpretations. And although Bacharach’s influence is undeniable, O’Rourke’s songs are quietly catchy without ever sounding derivative.
Orchestration is Eureka‘s truffle on top. A pedal guitar introduces the coda in “Ghost Ship in a Storm,” adding an ethereal quality to an otherwise winsome song. Steel drums and a saxophone solo—strangely reminiscent of Pink Floyd—turn “Through the Night Softly” from merely good to positively great, while the title track searches for elegy with organ pipes and a team of horns. Keeping a balance between exploration and excess in orchestration is difficult; O’Rourke knows when to be ambitious and when to stick with his bread and butter. More often than not, piano, guitar, and drums dig into a rhythm alone, competent and seductive.
O’Rourke’s vocals are serviceable, nothing to write home about, but I bet O’Rourke understands this. Almost as a consolation, his lyrics are uniformly funny and lucid. O’Rourke has mastered the art of self-deprecation in song like few others before him. (David Berman, of Silver Jews, and Leonard Cohen come to mind.) O’Rourke’s lyrical persona is Woody Allen with a little less Eeyore:
It only figures
That I’d ride my bike
Into wet cement
And as I’m sinkin’
The last thing that I think
Is did I pay my rent
O’Rourke also plays with portmanteaus and inverted meanings, displaying a surprising sensitivity to words and the power of expectations:
I’m going to a place
Where the women have nothing on
But the radio
Turned up to 10
Too loud for me to think
I’m hoping if I blink
I don’t wake up here
One of life’s greatest sins
Is that you’re over when it begins
These lyrics point to an absurdist streak in O’Rourke, a habit of contemplating the deficits of the world with a witty cynicism. It’s a pleasure to hear the acid tongue behind the meek voice. (“Those holes on your face could be used better ways / Breathing’s a distraction when you chatter away” he says on Insignificance.) But listen closely before you laugh, because there’s a good chance he’s saying something nasty about you. As it stands, there is nothing resembling a love song in Eureka, and that’s probably for the best: O’Rourke has arguably staked out more compelling territory, full of resentment and thwarted longing.
Eureka clocks in at 8 tracks and 42 minutes long. It probably could be longer, but quibbling about album length seems hardly fair. Even at substandard length, Eureka is expansive. O’Rourke balances the somber and the giddy expertly, maintaining an unpredictability that lends each song freshness. The first track on the album, “Women of the World,” is a 9-minute meditation with a single, repeated verse—no chorus. The first three minutes are incantatory. The next three minutes, the listener wavers. The final three minutes, the listener is ready to believe again.