Review Summary: The light at the end of Colin Stetson's proverbial tunnel
Before we get going, let’s address the elephant in the room: Isn’t it funny that bass saxophonist Colin Stetson (read: an avant-garde
bass saxophonist) would enlist Justin Vernon for vocal duties on his latest solo release? Vernon, after all, was the single candle that burned behind Bon Iver, Bon Iver
-- known in some lands as the most unequivocally ambiguous album of 2011. Considering Stetson’s music has always thrived with charismatic and headstrong lead vocalists at its helm (see New History Warfare, Vol. 2
and its beautiful utilization of Shara Worden’s bluesy croons in “Lord I just can’t keep from crying sometimes”), Vernon being chosen for a similar task is initially mind-boggling. But the choice works because Colin Stetson utilizes Bon Iver’s vague phrasings as yet another medium, another vessel to which To See More Light can be accurately conveyed.
It’s hard to imagine Stetson's exact thoughts upon writing this album, but his songwriting capabilities at least provide hints. Pardon my use of words we’ve all seen too many times, but the album functions as the light at the end of New History Warfare
’s proverbial tunnel. This gives the wrong impression, though, because the album simply isn’t that blatant-- no, To See More Light
captures the precise moment where the light meets the darkness, the exact point in which it coalesces with dark to resolve into muted grey. In the concluding chapter of New History Warfare
, Colin Stetson finally realizes his music can reach some sort of resolution, a catharsis of sorts if he wants it to. And clearly he does-- To See More Light only flirts with tension in its first half, only to eschew it for a sense of comfort in its concluding moments. It’s rejuvenating to experience such warm hues from Stetson; these moments gives the album's previous tension more significance.
Colin Stetson plays the role of backbone here, as he always has. Whether menacing or soothing, whether chaotic or meticulous, he provides the framework for the other elements to work within. Justin Vernon’s voice plays with Stetson’s blueprint, only taking the reins when the saxophone takes a step back. There’s always an active voice within To See More Light
, which gives direction to the sometimes chaotic release. Don’t get me wrong, though-- this album emphasizes Colin Stetson and his musical explorations. During the saxophonist’s respites, though, Justin Vernon is there to take the reins. This give-and-take feel gives To See More Light an interactive flair, and with it, the realization that Stetson is great at finding reliable musical company to keep.
To See More Light
doesn’t go about trying to reinvent the wheel, and as it shouldn’t-- the blueprint established through Stetson’s prior releases is diverse enough that more of the same is a good thing. The best moments here are actually the ones that hark back to other moments in Stetson’s career, such as the ferocious pace of true opener “Hunter.” The track could have easily been on New History Warfare II: Judges, because it's as fierce and urgent as a siren call. And in moments like this, it’s clear why Colin Stetson stands out from the avant-garde crowd: he’s as identifiable as he is inventive. In two albums, the man shatters our conceptions of music-- and in the finale of his trilogy, he glues the pieces back together and hands the end product back to us, thereby redefining the word ‘musician’ in a single gesture.