Jim O’Rourke doesn't much care for ambient music, so it makes sense that his first ambient album picks apart the genre and scrutinizes its attempts to produce truly structureless music.
Jim O’Rourke inhabits genres as different as Americana, pop, and guitar rock in order to poke holes in them from inside. His last proper solo album, 2015’s Simple Songs, tackled ’70s singer-songwriter fare with seamless orchestration and wry lyrics. On Sleep Like It’s Winter, O’Rourke changes direction again, adopting the tropes of ambient music to disseminate both criticism and nostalgia over the course of a single, stunning 45-minute track. The result is an ambient album about ambient albums—a study as effective as Eureka’s and Insignificance’s respective examinations of orchestral pop and rock, even though O’Rourke never opens his mouth to voice a jokey critique.
He doesn’t much care for ambient, as it turns out. (His first love, stretching back to early albums like 1991’s Tamper, was tape music; Michael Nyman’s Experimental Music: Cage and Beyond was a foundational high school read.) O’Rourke’s quarrel is with the genre’s purported absence of structure, a formlessness he sees expressed only through a narrow range of harmonies and sounds. It’s an understandable perspective for a musician whose first love was the avant-garde world of John Cage and Karlheinz Stockhausen, where every assumption about composing, instrumentation, and performing could be challenged.
So he’s made an ambient record, but in a way, all his own. Recorded for the recently launched Japanese ambient label Newhere, Sleep Like It’s Winter purposefully picks apart the genre and scrutinizes its optimistic attempts to produce truly structureless music. On its surface, the album resembles some of O’Rourke’s more spontaneous Steamroom releases (this spring’s Steamroom 40 was all live improvisation). In fact, he spent over two years making it, and the meticulousness of his craftsmanship seems designed to examine the very idea of structure.
Sleep opens with delicately stretched horns, which give way to a methodical piano line that wanders in and out of gradually sharpening drones with enough drama to discourage background listening. Put this on while you’re cleaning the house, and it will unsettle your subconscious; a focused listen, however, reveals subtle tension mounting throughout the piece. A conspicuous crescendo suggests that, even when working with such a vast canvas, O’Rourke never loses sight of its structural frames. Around the 16-minute mark, these sounds give way to silence, save for some buzzing cicadas and a few calling birds. For several minutes (though not quite 4:33), the environment surrounding O’Rourke becomes the only instrument, a solo of sorts that serves the structural purpose of bridging the record’s two halves.
If albums like Eureka, Insignificance, and Simple Songs feel connected by O’Rourke embrace of pop forms, Sleep finds its own musical touchstones in more abstract corners of his discography. The combination of horn drones and piano achieves the same anxious swell as “Our Exquisite Replica of Eternity,” the ornate opener to his ’90s duo Gastr Del Sol’s Upgrade & Afterlife (minus the staticky Kevin Drumm guitar solo. Later, he employs a bath of synths as euphoric as his computer-music classic I’m Happy & I’m Singing & A 1,2,3,4, as the composition gently dissolves over its starry second side. These moments suggest that much of Sleep’s “ambient music” comprises sounds that have always been important to O’Rourke—but, as is always the case on his albums, what matters is how and why he uses them. Even when occupying this new musical form, his creative ear for melody and harmony never feels limited by it.
The minimalist composer Morton Feldman once asked, “Do we have anything in music that really wipes everything out? That just cleans everything away?” His compositions—built from impossibly quiet clusters of sparsely played notes and sometimes running as long as six hours—are often cited as predecessors of ambient. But Feldman doesn’t seem to think there really is anything that “wipes everything out”; his pieces are some of the most meticulously structured and intricately notated in 20th-century music. O’Rourke, a perfectionist if there ever was one, offers a similar rejoinder to ambient rhetoric within Sleep Like It’s Winter’s expertly carved frames. The tropes of ambient music may be well worn, 18 years into the 21st century, but he navigates and challenges them enough to make the genre his own.