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Holy Hell! Eureka Turns 20

Holy Hell! Eureka Turns 20

One of Jim O’Rourke’s defining characteristics—in both his song-based music for Drag City and his ever-expanding catalog of experimental releases—is his expert use of humor.

One of Jim O’Rourke’s defining characteristics—in both his song-based music for Drag City and his ever-expanding catalog of experimental releases—is his expert use of humor. Far from drowning his art in mindless goofiness, however, O’Rourke’s dry wit illuminates his recurring subjects of failure, bitterness and confusion. Released in 1999, Eureka is one of three Drag City full-lengths where O’Rourke sings, and it arguably contains his strongest lyrical writing. Insignificance (2001) has more confidence, and Simple Songs (2015) is a masterclass in innuendo and word play. Still, little matches the troubled psyche at the heart of Eureka.

It’s on this release that O’Rourke hits the sweet spot between hopefulness and complete desolation. The overall feeling is that of being perpetually hungover, staring at your gaunt and sallow mug in the mirror and wishing someone would save you from yourself. “It only figures/ That I’d ride my bike/ Into wet cement/ And as I’m sinkin’/ The last thing that I think/ Is did I pay my rent?,” O’Rourke sings on the stellar “Ghost Ship in a Storm,” wallowing in a relatable defeatism at the hands of the debilitating and dehumanizing forces of urban life and late capitalism.

O’Rourke has long touted his love for arthouse cinema, be it through his album names (Eureka is the second of four named after Nicolas Roeg films) or in his wildly entertaining interviews (a November 1997 cover story for Wire finds him praising the artistic approaches of Brecht and Godard). His characters on Eureka further reflect this, mirroring European films’ omnipresent existential dread, such as the ennui that follows Anna Karina’s roles throughout her famed ’60s career. The sorrow felt for O’Rourke’s seemingly helpless persona isn’t so much heart-wrenching as it is sympathetic and pitiful, as his ills are both a product of the broken system surrounding him and his habitually bad decision-making skills.

Almost in contradiction with the album’s overall lyrical bleakness, the instrumental aspects of Eureka are a series of love letters to the joys of pop music. O’Rourke’s backing musicians here are a group of esteemed Chicago avant-gardists (among them future Wilco drummer Glenn Kotche), and the bandleader molds them into a unique whole made up of equal parts tape collage, Tin Pan Alley camp and improvised drone. “Movie on the Way Down” mashes all these elements into seven-and-a-half minutes, beginning with a studio-assembled ambient experiment before segueing into a loping chant against the dangers of pride. “Is your smile / So easily worn?,” O’Rourke asks with a snarl, spitting at the idea of ever feeling entitled to praise.

The blend of grinning cheese and experimentalism is so seamless that the resultant combination can read as perverse. “Through the Night Softly” is so bombastic and romantic that it caused an original Pitchfork review to call it “the ending- credits- of- ‘Saturday Night Live’ song G.E. Smith never wrote.” Beneath the composition’s sheen, though, is a three-part mini-epic full of digitally processed voices, blaring saxophone and rigid thematic development. This and the following track, the shuffling “Please Patronize Our Sponsors,” are the album’s two solely instrumental cuts, and they offer a pleasant interlude of O’Rourke’s ingenious writing and arranging (the guitar line on “Please Patronize” is particularly of note) between the emotional heaviness of the vocal-driven cuts.

Against these gutting originals are two ingenious covers of schmaltzy, early 20th-century American pop. The first, “Prelude to 110 or 220 / Women of the World,” is a take on Ivor Cutler’s novelty song, with the entirety of O’Rourke’s realization hinging on one set of lyrics: “Women of the world take over/ Because if you don’t the world will come to an end/ And it won’t take long.” Cutler’s original is cute, but O’Rourke blows the composition up into an epic, almost nine-minute crescendo. The piece’s simple acoustic opening swells into an explosive assemblage of strings, ensemble vocals and propulsive drums. The irony of a group of primarily men belting this refrain into oblivion isn’t lost, and the overly dramatic musical background turns Cutler’s lyrics into a collective of clueless dudes begging for salvation from their own fuck-ups.

The album’s second cover veers even further into the world of cheese, looking to Burt Bacharach of all people. The musical reinterpretation is practically a note-for-note remake, but its context within the album gives O’Rourke’s take its unique qualities. Against so many failures and missed opportunities, Bacharach’s optimism becomes a sort of tortured perseverance. “There’ll be joy and there’ll be laughter/ Something big is what I’m after now,” the background singers chime, searching for a grandiose fulfillment that’s either been lost or never existed in the first place, all with Bacharach’s sweeping arrangements floating around O’Rourke in a blissful, faux-tropical rainbow.

The album’s title ranks among the best pop tunes O’Rourke has ever crafted. Carried by a beautiful, lamenting brass dirge and blipping synthesizers, the track is a logical culmination of all the self-loathing and complacency that hangs around O’Rourke on Eureka. “You’re thinking on your feet/ While you’re sitting there on your ass/ Fresh crease in your shirts/ No stain of sweat on your back,” he dryly sings. Against the brass writing, which is equal parts funeral and fanfare, there’s almost a nobility about this kind of inactivity. The nervous pressure of societal responsibilities has vanished, and what initially reads as laziness becomes a hymn to the promised land of time with one’s own thoughts in a comfortably air-conditioned room.

Eureka reads as a plea for escape from the dull, maddening and tiresome forces of American city life. Its anxieties are a direct cause of the constant need to feel productive and worthful. Perhaps—outside of his generally restless artistic spirit—the reason that O’Rourke has never even come close to making a similar album is that he’s finally found rest. Who cares about drowning in cement when you’re holed up in a cabin-turned-studio in rural Japan, working at your own pace and releasing one-off drone albums for a small but dedicated following? Hopefully this fantasy of contentedness has become O’Rourke’s reality. For those of us still trapped in overpriced apartment complexes next to oil refineries, Eureka is a godsend; a hilarious, touching album meant to help guide us through what can sometimes feel like a sea of shit.

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