Feature: Holy Hell! ‘Insignificance’ is 20

What seemed a departure 20 years ago, another dramatic shift in tone and timbre, today seems like a bit of put-on. Or was it? Today, we’re talking about Jim O’Rourke’s Insignificance, the second LP in the Tokyo-based/expat U.S. artist’s most commercially accessible (non-Sonic Youth) output, which turns 20 as this fine, feathered year of our Lord 2021 comes grinding to its final breaths. Once hailed as part of a suite of records that was “Best of the Decade” material, today Insignificance is the aural equivalent of the night you decided to overdo your instinct to trip the light fantastic and danced, limbs akimbo, around the party naked as the day you were born – O’Rourke doesn’t seem to like talking about it and, for a supposed career highlight, it’s suspiciously absent on his Spotify channel.

It all started, to be fair, with 1999’s Eureka. O’Rourke had just come off the Gastr del Sol breakup and the Happy Days LP, which was a nightmare to put together, as rumor has it. So, he embraced POP in all majesty – and he embraced it like a horny teenager looking for some hot action. Eureka was (and is) good stuff; O’Rourke leads a star-studded cast of former and present collaborators through a handful of pop-idiom gems that fall somewhere between Burt Bacharach and Harry Nilsson. (In case you didn’t get the referencing memo, O’Rourke and company do a flamboyant cover of Bacharach’s “Something Big.”) The thing, though, was stylistically about as far removed from the subdued and oft-opaque avant-art of Gastr del Sol or most of O’Rourke’s pre-Gastr solo work as the sun is removed from, say, Pluto. (And, for what it was worth to a critical darling, Pitchfork hated it.) Listening to Eureka, you got the sense O’Rourke was trying to distance himself from the burning-bright glow of his partnership with David Grubbs, which by 1999 had become nothing but a distant blip in the cosmos-black ether. The cover, for those keeping track, featured a naked, obese and bald man pleasuring himself with the face of a stuffed bunny. Yep, like you do.

Insignificance was the double-down, the point to prove. From the stadium-sized ‘70s rawk of opener “All Downhill from Here” (O’Rourke, in hindsight, seems pretty plain about his views of commercially accessible music) to the Sonic Youth-distilled intro of “Memory Lame,” this thing was an ornate and over-produced monster of an LP. But, listen, it had deep, deep hooks and some incredible turns of musical phrase. And O’Rourke knew it. It was as if he was toying with listeners’ expectations, giving them exactly what they wanted, then spitting in their faces. This is either the work of a genius or an idiot and, based on the rest of O’Rourke’s resume, I think most people will favor the former.

All these years later, though, the songs still work, damnit. The somber acoustic ballad “Good Times,” with its pedal steel and soft Fahey-isms, feels like the great work O’Rourke did with Bill Callahan on Smog’s Red Apple Falls. “Therefore, I Am”’s choppy mannerisms and almost arrhythmic drum work from Wilco percussionist Glenn Kotche remain stunning. The closing minute of “Life Goes Off,” where acoustic guitar verse/chorus/verse-isms and pedal steel weeping get swept up in tides of handclaps, percussion and, then, epic white noise, is borderline brilliant, making previous times when O’Rourke employed the trick (we’re thinking mostly of Boxhead Ensemble’s “Ebb’s Folly”) seem shockingly incomplete. The fact that he closed the whole record with this is an act of bravura showmanship.

“At every moment [O’Rourke] challenges his audience to rethink the expectations and categorical distinctions they bring when listening to music, exploring these constructs in order to rewire their semantic codes in astonishing and unforeseen ways,” music critic Jay Sanders writes, rather brilliantly, in BOMB. In the case of Eureka or Insignificance (or Simple Songs, a later and much less successful POP outing), that’s the domain of the pop landscape. The fact that O’Rourke can start a record hinting at stadium-rock and end it with a beatific act of musique concrete, even 20 years later, is remarkable stuff. A lot of writers, this one included, talk a lot about O’Rourke making art for art’s sake. There’s merit to that argument and to that process. On Insignificance, he made art he knew we’d all eat up – and fed us sophisticated song-smithing, Bacharach-quality production and weird digressions into avant-garde territory. And he did it on an LP whose cover featured an overweight man, with pencil-thin teenager mustache, posing defiantly in shocking-pink lingerie. You know, like you do. — Justin Vellucci, Spectrum Culture, Dec. 2, 2021

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About the author

Justin Vellucci is a staff writer for PopMatters, Spectrum Culture, and MusicTAP, a contributor to Pittsburgh Current, and a former staffer for Popdose, Punk Planet and Delusions of Adequacy. His music writing has appeared in national magazines such as American Songwriter, alt-pubs like The Brooklyn Rail, Pittsburgh CityPaper and San Diego CityBeat, blogs Swordfish, Punksburgh and Linoleum, and the Gannett magazine Jetty. He lives in Pittsburgh.

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