Quarantining The Past: Jim O’Rourke’s ‘Eureka’

    History’s a funny thing, especially in music. It can be easy to streamline the narrative, to decide what music was in a given genre at a given time, what, say, ’90s indie rock was, what it was all about, what it nearly always sounded like (with a few deviations here and there). That’s a lot of what goes on here at QtP and elsewhere, and some of it is shaping history to fit a particular idea, some of it may be revisionism, some of it may be oversimplifying — and some of it may be totally correct — but the bottom line is that culture is rarely that simple. Things are always changing and the sound of what we think of as “important” music in the ’90s was constantly morphing, especially as we neared the end of the decade and entered the true doldrums of popular music. Hip-hop was in control, and outside of that we had to suffer through Creed and Metallica recording with orchestras. At least that’s part of the story.

    So it’s stuff like Jim O’Rourke’s 1999 album, Eureka, that sound so fascinating even today. It’s an album that fits no real narrative. It’s not the dour, brooding indie pop of Neutral Milk Hotel (who put out In the Aeroplane Over the Sea a year before) or Smog (who released Knock Knock in 1999), nor is it anything like music you’d hear on the radio. If there’s any analog for Eureka in 1999, it may be Wilco’s Summerteeth, which is ironic since O’Rourke would mix their career defining next album, Yankee Hotel Foxtrot.

    Eureka is a shimmering pop record, one full of expansive compositions with unique and seeming disparate tones and textures. It’s an album that owes very little to “independent” music, little to rock music, and instead dabbled in odes to Burt Bacharach and, under all the layers, John Fahey, an artist O’Rourke would honor and explore more fully on Bad Timing. “Prelude to 110 or 220/Women of the World,” which is (in part) a Ivor Cutler cover, is a jarringly beautiful opener. It starts with some Tacoma School finger-picking, but blows up into a lush orchestration of strings and xylophones and percussion, while O’Rourke repeats the same line over and over. “Women of the world take over, because if you don’t the world will come to an end. It won’t take long,” he sings, and halfway through you might wish he’d quit, but a funny thing happens as he presses forward. The line sinks in, as do the sweet layers of the music, and the line becomes like the soothing roll of waves.

    In a strange way, it’s a combative start to a record, mostly because, in the same way the album doesn’t fit the narrative of its time, it also doesn’t fit the narrative we have around its creator. O’Rouke is the avante-garde noisemaker, the guy who played with Sonic Youth at their most feedback-heavy, the guy with that menagerie of strange side projects, the guy that mixed the dissonant Yankee Hotel Foxtrot (an album that, let’s be honest, isn’t all that dissonant). We expected roiling sound from O’Rourke instead these sweet tunes. 

    Yet this is his strength, not making the ugly beautiful, but forming layers into perfect shape. O’Rourke doesn’t obscure but rather organize and peel away textures to clarify what’s really there — see his production on another 1999 album, Superchunk’s Come Pick Me Up, for evidence. Eureka is the best example of this. The jazzy roll of “Ghost Ship in a Storm” pits lean guitars against layered vocals, plinking pianos, and the sway of pedal steel. It makes one huge sound, but you can hear the force of every piece in that puzzle, even the lowly egg shaker that plays on its own at the song’s end and leads into “Movie on the Way Down.”

    Now there can be negative space and dissonance on this record. Before the buzzing up and down of bass that opens “Movie on the Way Down,” there’s just faint static. The song then builds slowly, from chord phrasings and horns testing themselves in the background to the solitary, mournful horns that surround O’Rourke’s voice when he sings, “There’s that word again: pride.” And while that song and the jazz-ballad wanderings of “Through the Night Softly” seem like typical O’Rourke experimentation, they actually contain basic enough structures, structures brought out to shine by the sheen of songs around them. O’Rourke’s take on Bacharach’s “Something Big” is irony-free and corny and brilliant. The bossa-nova guitar, the female backing vocals, the production sheen: it’s a big pop spectacle, but it’s nearly perfect and a great lead-in to the moody space of the title track.

    None of these songs really sound the same — “Eureka” is space-aged melancholia while “Something Big” is anachronistic, joyful showmanship — but they mesh into this sweeping whole, something not at all fractured, something complete and downright beautiful to listen to. It’s clever in its construction but never self-consciously weird or winking or detached. Jim O’Rourke is committed to every moment, so that the spectacle of all this sound doesn’t feel like pop fluff; it feels like a deep rumination on music, on how it can feel, on how when it gets bigger it can dig deeper instead of distancing itself from us.

    And here again it didn’t fit a narrative. In some ways, it shares more than a few sonic similarities with another lush and much lauded album from 1999: The Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin. But while most people embraced the more subtle strangeness of Eureka, a certain future bastion and tastemaker of indie culture did not. Pitchfork actually dismissed Eureka, giving it a 5.3, while it loved Summerteeth (9.4) and has spent the decade-plus since The Soft Bulletin‘s release canonizing it (sure, with good reason). The fact that Eureka was rated low once isn’t of note, in and of itself. Consensus says now that Eureka is an important record, and the interesting thing about history in the digital age is that you can try to repair history to fit the narrative consensus creates. The notion that disagreeing with consensus makes you wrong is, of course, flawed, but in terms of how we remember albums, consensus carries a lot (perhaps too much) weight. It’s no wonder Pitchfork, and probably others, missed what Eureka was about. It was an outlier, something that sounded like nothing else going on at the same time. In the long run we often see this as a virtue, but in the short term we often miss the boat on the visionaries. 

    But here’s the thing: If you go search for the Eureka review on Pitchfork, you won’t find it. It’s been deleted from the site, and any talk of the album on the site now (say, related to O’Rourke’s upcoming shows where he’ll play the entire album) imply its greatness. Eureka is an album that invites changes in opinion, that will grow with you, that will strike you differently from one day to the next, depending on your mood or where you are or whatever. That an outlet’s opinion changed on an album is fine, but that this somehow negates, or they feel it should negate, the original opinion is a strange commentary on the stories we have around music and its legacy. Eureka is the kind of strange and beautiful record that invites these sorts of complex questions, that almost requires a diversity of responses. It belies its own time and yet somehow represents it. It questions narratives by defining new ones. Its power comes in not fitting, no matter how much we try (and how much we revise and cut) to make it. Like I said, history is a funny thing.