If you could pinpoint a moment in Jim O’Rourke’s solo career to show his all-encompassing genius, a good choice would fall near the end of 2001, when he somehow dropped one of the era’s greatest rock albums and one of its best electronic albums within a single month. Bafflingly, I’m Happy, And I’m Singing, And A 1, 2, 3, 4 arrived only weeks after the Drag City classic Insignificance (which Chris DeVille recently covered in-depth), and at first glance you’d never guess they were the same artist. One includes bleakly hilarious lyrics, endlessly creative guitar riffs, and about half of Wilco; the other is a sprawling electro-acoustic suite comprising three hypnotic live performances made with only a laptop. That’s precisely why it feels impossible to define O’Rourke in a single moment or album; his range is so vast.
“It’s unfortunate but it seems like I’m à la carte for most people,” he told Bomb Magazine in a 2015 interview for the equally singular Simple Songs. “There’s got to be only a handful of people out there who have heard the bulk of what I’ve done. Those who only know the Drag City records don’t know the other stuff so, unfortunately, that particular aspect of what I do gets lost for a lot of listeners.”
There’s something funny and deeply honest about that quote to me, because it is not easy to hear the bulk of what Jim O’Rourke has done when that includes pop albums, countless collaborative improv releases, live albums, early musique concrète recordings, bands like Gastr Del Sol and Loose Fur, and a Burt Bacharach covers album, without even getting into his eras with Sonic Youth and Wilco and Bill Callahan and so many others. Less than a week ago, he released the 57th volume of his Steamroom series, and you know what? It fucking rules! I’ve never heard anything like it in his career! So there’s no keeping up with O’Rourke, but diving into an unexplored part of his career always proves rewarding. And no matter what kind of O’Rourke fan you are, I’m Happy, And I’m Singing, And A 1, 2, 3, 4 is worth a trip.
The album is split into three distinct tracks — recorded between 1997 and 1999 in New York, Osaka, and Tokyo — that together form the playfully odd title. “I’m Happy” immediately hits an ear-tickling sweet spot as synths spill forth in increasingly dizzying patterns. If you’ve heard “Women Of The World” — O’Rourke’s expansive Ivor Cutler cover that opens 1998’s Eureka — it brings to mind the curlicue loops making up its outro. Here they keep stretching on through the track’s 11-minute sprawl, the chirpy synth melody getting more anxious with each tightening spiral. The synths grow even more unstable later on, cracking apart in glitchy blips, while a drone that’s churned underneath nearly the entire track rises to the surface. Taken all at once, it’s both uncompromisingly abstract and indulgently beautiful.
Just as Drag City has its own special pocket of O’Rourke’s work — including Bad Timing, Eureka, Insignificance, The Visitor, and Simple Songs — the legendary Austrian experimental label Mego (now Editions Mego) has its own selection of classics. This includes Fenn O’Berg, a sort of super-group trio of O’Rourke, Christian Fennesz, and label founder Peter Rehberg — who produced music as Pita and tragically passed away this summer — as well as Old News, an album series that began in 2002. Mego released Endless Summer, the breakthrough release by Fennesz and simply one of the most beautiful albums ever recorded, only a few months before I’m Happy, and the second track “And I’m Singing” brings to mind its similarly blissful passages. After beginning with something as straightforward as a ticking clock, the song splits apart in a swirl of digital blips before settling on a looping piano and acoustic strums. Picking apart all of its endless shifting and impossibly pretty details is like pointing out individual stars in a meteor shower, but these eight minutes are among the most remarkable in O’Rourke entire career.
The 21-minute closing track “And A 1, 2, 3, 4” is both the album’s longest and most restrained piece, but O’Rourke’s silvery string treatments are so emotional and focused that I’ve always found it to be the most gripping of the trio. The piece gradually decays to near-silence in its closing minutes, while holding your attention to the last second. Though each piece comes from a different concert, they form such a perfect trajectory that you can happily play it on a loop like the musical equivalent of a perpetual motion machine.
When I interviewed O’Rourke for this site in 2018, he brought up genre filmmakers like William Friedkin — who made everything from The Exorcist and The French Connection to batshit modern cult classics like Bug and Killer Joe — in comparison to his approach with the albums Eureka and Insignificance. Those albums aimed to comment on genres like rock or pop, but had to be firmly and genuinely rooted in those musical languages. I asked him if he was happy with the result.
“I mean, I’m never happy. But it came out fairly close, more than usual,” he said, before laughing and adding, “but I don’t mean that like I’m miserable — it’s just not why I do these things. If I wanted to be happy I would just sit and watch movies all day.”
O’Rourke mostly described his work in those degrees to me — close, closer than usual, really close — but I take the spirit of this album’s title sincerely. First off, he clearly hates singing and, despite the name, doesn’t have to open his mouth once here. But he makes that laptop sing, drawing genuinely angelic music out of what must be a dense mess of Max MSP patches while working in a live performance mode that fits like a sweet spot. He might not ever reach what’s in his mind, but these songs let you witness Jim O’Rourke in motion and pursuit of that end. It’s a quality that feels universal to his work, exemplified beautifully here. So there is no perfect Jim O’Rourke album, but no matter what kind of fan you are, I’m Happy, And I’m Singing, And A 1, 2, 3, 4 gets really, really close.