Not Sport, Martial Art”
Six short years since Jim O’Rourke’s The Visitor, the man whose catchphrase may as well be “everyone hates me” is back with Simple Songs, out next month on Drag City. O’Rourke has released and been a part of hundreds of records, but most of his solo albums are drones or laptop misadventures (a friend of mine described the Max-MSP I'm Happy and I'm Singing and a 1, 2, 3, 4 as “fucking around with some CD-J’s”).
But even dozens of duds don’t diminish the trilogy of albums he made named after Nicholas Roeg movies: Bad Timing, Eureka, and Insignificance. Bad Timing is 45 minutes of worship at the altar of John Fahey; Eureka is dentist office muzak arrangements set against relentlessly bleak lyrics, just like Steely Dan but even more innocuous and thin (for what it’s worth, O’Rourke says he hates Eureka and “can’t listen to it”); Insignificance is the 1970s record, and his best: hard rock and ballads and even more grim lyrics, swinging from abject pride (“I’ve been around the world, I’ve seen so many things, why am I talking to you?/Why do you hide behind somebody else/There’s one too many in this room, and I think it’s you”) to seething misanthropy (“Looking at you, reminds me of looking at the sun/And how the blind are so damn lucky./Those holes on your face could be used better ways/Breathing’s a distraction when you chatter away […] Listening to you, reminds me of a motor’s endless drone/And how the deaf are so damn lucky”) to utter self-loathing (“Everything that you’ve felt was someone else giving you something/It's never too late to start to regret every step you've taken, every word you've said”). 2009’s The Visitor continued the series, a sequel of sorts to Bad Timing. But in between Eureka and Insignificance, O’Rourke released an EP called Halfway to a Threeway. Its second track, “Not Sport, Martial Art” is my favorite song of all time.
First of all: is that a typo? Is it “Martial” like it says on the sleeve, or is “Martial” like one would expect and everyone wants it to be? “Not Sport, Martial Art”—what kind of a bizarre pun is that? I’ve never been able to get a straight answer. Anyway, this song is everything I viscerally love about music. There are no vocals, aside from a sigh through clenched teeth at 3:07. A finger-picked guitar figure begins, barely audible, until drums, more guitars, and the occasional organ drop-in come in. Like Uncle Walter and Uncle Don, O’Rourke is a technical perfectionist who writes deceptively complex parts and labors over timbre and phrasing and voicing so that even his instrumentals evoke his personality so strongly. “Not Sport, Marital Art” is not a virtuoso show-off piece, the melody is very simple and sunny, something that could soundtrack transitions into morning weather forecasts and nightly news. It’s an eternal melody, but deployed here, it’s suspicious, and it sounds like a forced smile, thin sunniness over a deep sadness.