[10 July 2009]
PopMatters Interviews Editor
Jim O’Rourke’s long and expansive solo output can basically be separated into two different categories: there are albums that feature his straight-forward pop-rock style (like 1999’s Eureka and 2001’s Insignificance), and albums where he goes the experimental/instrumental route. Of this latter group, there are two distinct subsections: there’s his warm, acoustic-oriented pieces (1997’s Bad Timing) and his more abrasive electronic compositions (1995’s Terminal Pharmacy). Though the lovingly titled I’m Happy, and I’m Singing, and a 1, 2, 3, 4 will no doubt get filed in the latter category, what makes it ultimately work is how it expands on O’Rourke’s trademarks without compromising a single damn thing—although that’s a two-edged sword within itself.
Originally released in 2001, this brand-new two-disc reissue places us right in the center of O’Rourke’s largest fascination of the time: glitch music. The opening track, “I’m Happy”, features a small cacophony of stutters and melodic bits, popping up every quarter-second and only lightly dancing around the hints of a proper melody. At first it seems slightly chaotic (just like any later-era Oval record), but as the song expands and breathes over its 11-minute runtime, faint bass tones are added, giving the tune a bit more melodic backbone and serving as an easy entry point into the album. With that said though, “I’m Happy” is a downer of a number, the bass notes ringing of mourning and sadness. Unfortunately, all the track does is simply expand upon those themes: it never resolves/climaxes them in any significant way.
It is here that we get to the key criticism that can be levied against I’m Happy ...: what, precisely, is it trying to accomplish? O’Rourke is an undisputed jack of all trades (writer, singer, producer, remixer, etc.), and—as such—the only real limits to his music exist beyond his imagination. “I’m Singing”, the second track on the album, does a complete 180 from the mournful glitch dirge that is “I’m Happy”, here using clock ticks, half-clear piano chords, and several quick edits to craft a suite that positively explodes with color and energy, waves of synth reverbs colliding with a steady, clipped beat and whatever bells and whistles O’Rourke feels like adding (including, quite literally, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it samples of bells and whistles).
The reason why “I’m Singing” works as an instrumental piece compared to “I’m Happy” (which feels more like an overblown textural experiment than anything else) is because there is a definite sense of dynamics: the song builds from its sampled clock opening into a plethora of excited sounds, the whole thing feeling like a freewheeling roller coaster of sorts, O’Rourke jumping wildly from one style to another simply because he feels like it. It’s a pastiche that shouldn’t work, but, against all odds, it does (and marvelously so). Though not as serious as the songs that surround it, “I’m Singing” is a slight bit of whimsy injected into the proceedings just for the hell of it: a serviceable breather from the heavy drama and also a fun diversion if there ever was one (in glitch-pop terms).
With “And a 1, 2, 3, 4,”, though, O’Rourke fine-tunes the dark space that he hints at with “I’m Happy”, here using drawn-out tones (and a helluva a lot of E-bow effects) to draft a 20-minute suite of mellow sounds with a genuine emotional base, the bass parts hitting some rather dour minor-key notes while the E-bow tones get chopped up to sound like cellos, some dissonant feedback thrown in during the final third of the piece just for good measure. Unlike “I’m Happy”, “And a 1, 2, 3, 4” has a genuine arc, the near-silent final two minutes proving to be just as haunting as the 19 that preceded it, the garbled words at the very end of the track sounding as if there is some robot trying to make some sort of plea towards us but is lacking in the proper circuitry to do so. Not a single sound is out of place during this exploration, and as a result of his careful considering, it has considerable emotional heft.
Though out of print for about five years, this 2009 re-release of I’m Happy ... adds an entire second disc of unreleased material from the same era, and though all three songs certainly hold within the same sonic template as the main album, none of the tracks have the amount of sonic intrigue. “He Who Laughs”, with its harsh modem-styled glitches and lovely bell tones, has a hard time determining what kind of track it wishes to be, and instead feels like O’Rourke is simply splitting the difference before our very ears. The 39-minute (!) tone poem that is “Getting the Vapours”, meanwhile, moves at a snails’ pace and features almost imperceptibly small sonic variations, going for the same dark emotional territory that “And a 1, 2, 3, 4” is going for but failing to add any new elements during its too-long track length.
The fantastically chaotic “Let’s Take It Again from the Top” is a whole different matter, though. Despite being only four minutes long, “Top” is a short burst of all the angry energy that is always at the heart of glitch music but only rarely touched upon, digital lightning crashes and exploding amps peppering the musical landscape, the only faint hits of melody appearing as shrapnel in the fallout. Despite its short (by comparison) length, it winds up covering more ground than “Getting the Vapours”, and—oddly enough—is more altogether more satisfying than “Vapours”, despite being one-tenth of the length.
Ultimately, I’m Happy, I’m Singing, and a 1, 2, 3, 4 is one of the more fascinating detours that O’Rourke has taken. Not a straight-up masterpiece, but a thorough and thoughtful exploration of the possibilities of glitch music though the ears of a true sonic master.