“Don’t believe a word I say,” Jim O’Rourke dryly intones. “Not that you would anyway.” The Chicago producer, multi-instrumentalist, and singer-songwriter extraordinaire is telling us a lot with the first sentences he utters on Insignificance, released 20 years ago today. “I may be insincere,” O’Rourke continues, “But it’s all downhill from here.” Considering the timeless brilliance of the album that unfolds from there, that last line might be the least sincere of all — except in the sense that “All Downhill From Here” is one of those openers so spectacular that it sets an impossible bar for the rest of the tracklist, the way a rollercoaster never climbs higher than at the top of its first hill.
Those swinging, bashed-out drums; a tangle of live-wire electric guitar that splays and spirals like Medusa whipping her hair; the grace with which this pop-rock banger morphs into translucent acoustic chamber-pop and back; the euphoric falsetto “Woo, woo!” that launches the music into a sonic fireworks display; the brass section that shows up for the grand finale just because. It’s just the sickest shit imaginable, the kind of song that will turn you into a fan for life in under five minutes.
This much hyperbole would surely gross out the relentlessly sardonic O’Rourke, but Insignificance merits it. If you’ve heard the album, you know. If you haven’t, I want to reach through your screen right now and get this music in your ears. This is a guy who was involved in some of the most classic records by Wilco, Joanna Newsom, and Smog, who has collaborated with icons from Fahey to Faust to Fennesz, who spearheaded Sonic Youth’s 21st century renaissance, who has helped to shape the face of experimental music for more than three decades. And yet the crown jewel of his career might be these seven tracks of avant-garde classic rock, brimming with color and dynamism, seasoned with scathing wit.
O’Rourke spent the 1990s becoming a mainstay of the Chicago music scene with a strong presence in both Europe and Japan. Through solo releases, his post-rock duo Gastr Del Sol with David Grubbs, his experimental supergroup Brise-Glase, a stint with underground heroes the Red Krayola, production and mixing for a growing roster of boundary-pushing artists, and seemingly endless interminglings with fellow visionaries around the world, he had established himself as a musician both playful and cerebral, unafraid of pushing his crisp recordings toward unfathomable elegance or unlistenable noise depending on the need of the song. By 2001 he had recently relocated to New York and was beginning to link with higher-profile artists, first joining Sonic Youth and then by giving Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot the reality-altering mixing job that sealed its masterpiece status.
O’Rourke had been taking a turn for the accessible with his own solo releases too via a streak of stunning records for Chicago’s legendary Drag City label. First there was 1997’s hypnotic fingerstyle guitar opus Bad Timing, then 1998’s inspired chamber-pop offering Eureka and its gentle folk-pop companion piece, 1999’s Halfway To A Threeway EP. Those albums developed a lot of the musical language O’Rourke would deploy on Insignificance: the lush and often-shifting arrangements, the florid and exploratory guitar work, the deadpan low-register vocal style. And then, with Insignificance, he tossed in a couple full-blown rockers, bringing the same intricate detail to electrifying fuzzed-out pop songs like the hard-charging “Therefore, I Am.”
Many other key figures in Chicago music played on Insignificance. Wilco’s Jeff Tweedy and Glenn Kotche, O’Rourke’s bandmates in Loose Fur, are all over the record, Kotche commingling with percussionist Tim Barnes to create a uniquely complex rhythmic backbone. Bassist Darin Gray of Brise-Glace is in there, as are eminent jazz guys Rob Mazurek and Ken Vandermark on cornet and sax respectively. Veteran pedal steel player Ken Champion, “a fixture on Chicago indie rock sessions” at the time, lends weeping allure to the quiet acoustic ballad “Good Times.” Together they combine into electro-acoustic suites that call back to ’70s staples from Steely Dan to Jim Croce to Yes, all while maintaining the visceral edge of an indie rock record recorded made quickly on a budget. At the time O’Rourke said he wasn’t happy with the mix, though he later told Stereogum the album “came out pretty well considering how quickly I made it.”
Such breathtakingly pretty music exists as a delivery system for lyrics so hilariously mean-spirited they’d make Randy Newman blush. You can get a sense of O’Rourke’s emotional disposition from the album’s packaging. Like Bad Timing and Eureka before it, Insignificance is named after a movie by the disorienting British filmmaker Nicolas Roeg. Like Eureka, it has unettling cover art by Japanese comic artist Mimiyo Tomozawa. But even without those factors you couldn’t miss the contempt coursing through these songs. O’Rourke goes above and beyond to convey it song after song, one biting couplet after another. The bitterness is essential to the Insignificance experience — words that make you laugh but also flinch from time to time, as if to keep your delusions of grandeur in check.
O’Rourke once explained that most of these songs are sung in character by “people who are about to die,” which certainly comes through on “Get A Room,” a black-comic portrait of a man on his deathbed whose last moments are plagued by his date’s snoring: “And you try to move towards her/ But you can’t move your shoulder/ And your sight’s getting dimmer/ Maybe if you kick her.” Similar cackling is to be had amidst the tumbling toms and brisk acoustic strums of “Memory Lame,” on which the narrator spouts sweet nothings like “Looking at you reminds me of looking at the sun/ And how the blind are so damn lucky.” Other zingers on the album include “We are on a sinking ship/ But I’d like to stay on board and shoot the cannons at you” and “It’d be so nice, if you weren’t here/ Empty air, where you used to stand” and even some fashion criticism: “If you were to die with that thing on/ You could’ve chose a better style.”
In the years after Insignificance, O’Rourke continued to make a profound impact on the indie-rock mainstream, but by the middle of the decade he was beginning to retreat from that spotlight. He left Sonic Youth after 2004’s Sonic Nurse. In 2005, he moved to Japan, where he has remained ever since. Since 2013 he has maintained a prolific but irregular release schedule through Bandcamp, issuing several new installments in his experimental Steamroom series each year. He took 14 years to follow Insignificance with another song-oriented album, 2015’s Simple Songs, and there’s no telling whether another one is ever coming. Keeping fans waiting indefinitely for further guitar-pop splendor is both kind of rude and beautiful in its own way, which is to say it’s extremely Jim O’Rourke.