“Impressive, difficult / arduous, pellmell / disorientating, visceral / affecting, physical / ethereal, superhuman / supernatural, mesmerizing / stupefying / engrossing, complicated polyphonies / tonal minimalism, sprawling / cinematic / dramatic, intangible / tangible, corporeal / transcendental, experimental / avant-garde / abstract, inventive, idiosyncratic / unusual, real / surreal, organic.”
– every discussion about Colin Stetson ever (via The Internet)
“Poetry in general seems to have sprung from two causes, each of them lying deep in our nature. First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood […] [and] the pleasure felt in things imitated. Objects which in themselves we view with pain, we delight to contemplate when reproduced with minute fidelity: such as the forms of the most ignoble animals and of dead bodies. […] Next, there is the instinct for ‘harmony’ and rhythm, meters being manifestly sections of rhythm. Persons, therefore, starting with this natural gift developed by degrees their special aptitudes, till their rude improvisations gave birth to Poetry.”
– from Poetics by Aristotle, Translated by S. H. Butcher
“I feel like when we talk about post-apocalyptic themes that’s what we’re really talking about. We’re always returning to this sense of being alone in a strange new place where all is bleak and all is lost. And it is this sense of isolation that permeates the whole album. I wanted to go into the balance between fear and transcendence.”
– Colin Stetson, on New History Warfare Vol. 2: Judges (via The Quietus)
“A little bit behind the beat
I mean just enough to turn you on
For every time she said the words
Another one of his doubts were gone.”
– from “Joy in Repetition” by Prince
“A lot of people say a lot of crazy shit.”
– Colin Stetson, on his music’s reception in the jazz community (via The Quietus)
“Every moment some form grows perfect in hand or face; some tone on the hills or the sea is choicer than the rest; some mood of passion or insight or intellectual excitement is irresistibly real and attractive for us — for that moment only. Not the fruit of experience, but experience itself, is the end. […] To burn always with this hard, gemlike flame, to maintain this ecstasy, is success in life.”
– from “Conclusion” to The Renaissance by Walter Pater
“Jimi Hendrix: ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’: You almost can’t run because this song makes your dick so hard. Give it time, you’ll get used to it.”
– Colin Stetson, on music to exercise to (via Pitchfork)
“Sexual masochism falls under the psychiatric sexual disorders category of paraphilias, meaning “abnormal or unnatural attraction.” Sexual masochism refers to engaging in or frequently fantasizing about being beaten, bound, or otherwise made to suffer, resulting in sexual satisfaction.”
– Definition of sexual masochism (via Psychology Today)
“…the addition of unnaturals is what I avoid.”
– Colin Stetson, on his studio techniques (via Stereogum)
So what do we have so far: purgation through replication of painful incident, jubilation through repetitive experience, sustained ecstasy through moment-by-moment impression, universality through singularity, carnal pleasure through extended discomfort, decoction through imperfection, perfection through reckless abandon, realization through isolation and unfamiliarity — a greater catharsis pied by momentary euphorias.
With all of that by way of general preamble on Colin Stetson, a more explicit dissection of the completing entry of his New History Warfare trilogy is in order. First of all, To See More Light is the most dynamic and sonically prismatic album of the trilogy, and yet it manages to retain all of Stetson’s music’s singular attributes and poignancies, as connoted above. Even more importantly, the album is entirely distinguishable from any of Stetson’s prior work, maintaining a cohesive character throughout the album’s implied narrative that, notwithstanding the physicality of the music, seems to be happening more in the mind than in the physical world of Judges.
Many of Stetson’s melodies seem to have adopted a hymnal quality from touring with Bon Iver — the melody in “This Bed of Shattered Bone” being the obvious example — with Justin Vernon’s own multi-tracked, “choir of lonely souls” vocals gracing three songs with a gospel affectation. “Who the Waves Are Roaring For” contains the most thorough coalescence between the vocal contribution and Stetson’s foundational work, with both artists catering to each other’s strengths to the point that the track wouldn’t be entirely out of place on Bon Iver, Bon Iver. Love him or hate him, Vernon’s vocals add a unique personality to the album that distinguishes it from its Laurie Anderson-featuring predecessor’s less ambiguous vocal work. Vernon’s canticle-like sonic anecdotes of hope also keep Stetson’s trilogy from potentially becoming a suffocating deluge.
In spite of Vernon’s presence, Stetson’s prior themes of isolation from Judges persist but, with the exception of the aptly titled “Hunted,” more in the form of anxious, isolated waiting than isolation in a state of active pursuit. Still, tension permeates almost all of Stetson’s saxophone playing and vocalizations, serving as the black to Vernon’s white and painting the album’s world in high-contrast. The melodies in both “High Above a Grey Green Sea” and “Among the Sef (Righteous)” — and these songs are melodic in a sense that you could never attribute to Stetson’s previous work — could have come straight out of Thom Yorke’s post-Y2K playbook, but there’s a more tactile sense of aching inflected through Stetson’s strained moans, making the anxiety more physical even amid incorporeal adversity.
Nowhere on the album is this sense of dramatic tribulation more palpable than on the audacious title track: this is the boss level, and by the time the song’s incline gives way to its slowing midpoint, you know that there’s no more running — it’s time to take a Michael Gira power-up and out-terrify the enigmatic enmity. Judging by the triumphantly chaotic conclusion to the latter half’s stress-test stomp, there’s real success — roll credits. This finale, along with the bellicose “Brute,” offer the starkest polarity between Judges and To See More Light: this time there’s actual winning — or at least not just running, those who didn’t run, and those who laid their bodies down — and Stetson’s Liturgy fandom is more present in these metallic bombardments than it was when he wore their t-shirt on national television.
Overall, Stetson hasn’t altered his approach much, but the results are more variegated, resonant, and almost religiously cathartic. If Judges was the darkness before the dawn, then To See More Light is the revealing of an impeded Sun, proving that sometimes what the light reveals can be more harrowing than what’s hidden in the dark.
“…with [the ancients], the poetical character of the action in itself, and the conduct of it, was the first consideration.”
– from the “Preface to the First Edition of Poems” by Matthew Arnold
“Pleas’d with his idol, he commends, admires,
Adores; and last, the thing ador’d, desires.”
– “The Story of Pygmalion and the Statue” in Metamorphoses by Ovid, translated by Sir Samuel Garth, et al.
“…he was able to absorb so much of himself into his instrument. […] It’s almost as if you can see the solo coming out of the expression of his face and the movement of his mouth.”
– Colin Stetson, on the influence of Jimi Hendrix’s Band of Gypsies (via Chart Attack)
I can’t avoid reflecting on why the process through which Colin Stetson makes his music is so inextricably tied to the music itself, for I think this must be what accounts for the surprisingly wide appeal of his music, regardless of its inherent difficulty. Like Hendrix, his relationship with his instrument becomes as important as what he expresses through it. Not everyone is able to digest profound works of poetry, but success in art is undeniable, even for the uninitiated, when the action is the poetry, when what’s expressed is the means of expression itself. If Colin Stetson creates art through an instrument that is the art, then his music becomes creation itself: in the same way that Pygmalion breathed life into his ivory love, Stetson very literally breathes life into his instrument, and in turn, like the statue transformed from stone to flesh, his music softens our hardened selves — it reminds us that we were once made, too.