Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld Never were the way she was

[Constellation; 2015]

Rating: 4/5

Styles: drone, dirge, mininalism, post-rock, chamber pop, electro-acoustic
Others: Hangedup, Philip Glass, Rachel’s, Lubomyr Melnyk, Antony and The Johnsons

Much to the blessing of low-frequency drone and sad clamorous metronome lovers everywhere, Colin Stetson continues to thrive. The unfailingly singular approach to the sound that he has carved out never feels like mere indie novelty, even with Justin Vernon crooning over it. The man’s music is sorrowful and soundtrack-friendly, but there is always an element of imperfection, of adjustment and sweat and lag and lope. He mercilessly tweaks his repetitions, even as they are deploying their neck noodling directives. What’s great about Stetson and Sarah Neufeld’s approach to instruments (respectively, saxophone and violin) is what’s great about drone-minded performers (and Constellation artists in particular) in general: there is very little detectable ego, despite the patient virtuosity of the playing. The tone is mournful, but the takeaway is a reach, not a culmination. Yearning as beauty is this way, but these two are grounded in their intonations. They are listing yet workmanlike. He of the heaving chest and contracting diaphragm, she of the arching back and flexing extensor muscle. Never were the way she was is music of fixed attention in the midst of ceaselessly surreal, unremarkable human struggle.

Minimalist or experimental approaches to pop modes can be a bit antiseptic in their pointedness, but this collaboration feels just loose enough to be a natural product of the air. It stands to reason that the musicians met on a soundtrack gig (2013’s French-made American crime drama, Blue Caprice) as their rapport is decidedly transportive. Not just in wordlessness, but in their economy; both performers come off like meticulous set designers. “In The Vespers” is Koyaanisqatsi in a single ravine-turned-junkyard. Instead of mountain peaks, the listener gets a low-angle view of an old Chevy, imperiously upward angled on a rubble pile. The skeleton behind the wheel, a drunkard who expired with his foot on the accelerator, having doggedly attempted to gun himself into the sun. Other times, the sound is like a slow-motion experience of what Thelma and Louise went through in that brief time between joyful exhilaration/abandon and actually landing on that canyon floor. In other words, occasionally some of this album is “not for the squeamish,” as Leonard Maltin might say.

Despite both artists’ predilection for grayer tones, there is an overriding sort of careworn fortitude that is imparted to the engaged listener. It is rotted buildings and cars and desolate holes in the earth, but the rough physicality of the playing is all bones. Some see the skeleton and see something ghoulish, some see an amazing network of joints and armor for complex and mysterious biological forces. It is wide-awake music that can paint with dour or melancholy colors but still convey the resilience and basic wonder with which we are compelled to push forward. It is process music, perhaps best exemplified on the resolutely aching title track. Despite its surface familiarity (it could easily be mistaken for a stray GY!BE moment), Stetson’s three short yet hungry breaths before each mournful hum and the gradual winding down of Neufeld’s steady bowing render this a compelling portrait of when we massage our grief until it begins to look unfamiliar. There is a still place where we have felt all we are going to feel about something; it’s not funny, but it isn’t serious either. It is death and the everyday okayness of it. A dragging shrug. A silent, reverent neighbor to defeat.

There’s much to be said for this release in terms of brevity. Instrumental music rarely takes the “leave ‘em wanting more” approach, but these offerings are so directly emotional and raw that they demand to be experienced in as concise and upright a fashion as possible. As such, Never were the way she was is an unsanctimonious presentation of solemn hymns. Nobody died, everybody dies. There isn’t any time; you must wait. Consciousness and attention spans being what they are, crafting a 45-minute album that’s over before you can think to check what track you’re on is no small feat. Together, Stetson and Neufeld have succeeded in not only melding their respective sounds, but also refining them. These songs urge you to consider the plight of humanity while deftly waltzing you into the maw of its moaning avatars. But there is a steady voice in their crude, finite, and mellifluously forlorn workouts, humbly suggesting: open your heart, open your ears, feel the dread-is-wonder-is-dread-is-grief-is-wonder-is-dread-again and love life anyway.

Links: Colin Stetson and Sarah Neufeld - Constellation

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