Review Summary: A Masterclass In Storytelling & Experimental Jazz
*Hey! I published this review on albumoftheyear.org but was happy enough with it that I wanted to publish it here too. I'd like to make an effort to write on here more, so I figured this'd be a good starting point. I know it's a long-ass review, but if you even bother to read a fraction of it, thank you.*
Colin Stetson is a musician unlike any other. Often times, when a musician has gained enough notoriety, there rises someone who tries to replicate what made them so special. Maybe it's one or two other artists, maybe it's an entire fad, but it can be seen everywhere, from mainstream artists (*especially* mainstream artists) to even some more underground acts. However, I have yet to see a single person replicate, or even ATTEMPT to replicate the sound Stetson has created. This is not because he hasn't had impact on the music scene, oh no, far from it. It's because, really, could anyone replicate what he has done here? This is not to discredit other artists' talent, but more to lend credence to Stetson's own talent. Never have I heard someone create the melodies he has created, let alone in the fashion he does it.
Pt. 1: The Lighthouse I-V
When we were that what wept for the sea is Stetson's longest album yet, beating out 𝑆𝑂𝑅𝑅𝑂𝑊 by nearly 20 minutes. The way this album is presented gives the feeling that this is intended to be a return to form, maybe even a sort of masterwork. And, frankly, I think it might be. This album contains a five-part series of songs entitled "The Lighthouse", which in and of themselves feel like a journey. "The Lighthouse I" starts the album with Stetson's expected, but still unique, brand of minimalist jazz. The melody created here is continued throughout the rest of the Lighthouse songs, with "The Lighthouse II" performing the melody in a chorus like fashion with Scottish smallpipes, performed by Brighde Chaimbeul. The second song here also features a rarity among Stetson's studio work, which is that overdubs are used, whereas the majority of Stetson's work is performed live and transferred straight to LP. Production is also seen on "Passage", "The Lighthouse III", and "The Lighthouse V". "The Lighthouse III" continues the series directly after "The Lighthouse II" on the album, both resting side by side around the half-way point of the project. This song has the Lighthouse melody performed on piano, with vocals supplemented by Iarla Ó Lionáird, who performs said vocals in the traditional Irish sean-nós style, where the singer typically performs in Gaelic and is heavily centered around rhythms being produced by rhymes. This style of singing is very centric on vocals, and is typically unaccompanied, meaning it is vocals and vocals alone. However, on "The Lighthouse III", it differs from typical sean-nós singing, as piano is introduced. The piano, of course, is somberly reciting the Lighthouse melody, though somewhat more detached, feeling as if it's a melody of its own. "The Lighthouse IV" sees Stetson back, once again reciting the original Lighthouse. This time, however, it is much more eerie. The tone of his instrument seems almost defeated, and the sound of ominous droning in the background at times overpowers the rest, leaning even more into this sense of dread. And finally, "The Lighthouse V" completes the pentalogy with vocals once again from Iarla Ó Lionáird, though this time in English and in spoken-word format. The song begins quietly, with little to no instrumentation aside from Lionáird's vocals, but just as they begin to come to an end, a soft humming begins to break through. And with Lionáird's departure, the instrumentation fully breaks out not long afterwards, a gorgeous finale paired alongside guitar by Toby Summerfield, string instrumentation by Matt Combs, as well as Chaimbeul's Scottish smallpipes once more.
The Lighthouse pentalogy might be once of Stetson's best works yet. The masterful story telling, the production choices, and the guest features all bring together some of his most compelling work. But it's important to remember, this series occupies only around 1/3 of this album. So, what about the rest?
Pt. 2: The Rest, Track by Track
Here, I will go over the rest of the album in chronological order. I will be skipping over the Lighthouse tracks (as I have already discussed them), but I will mention them briefly if need be. I've also split it into 4 parts, just to make easier reading.
It must be noted that, despite my heavy focus on Lighthouse I-V, the rest of this album is just about as equally compelling. After the first Lighthouse, we are met with the title track, "When we were that what wept for the sea". This sees Stetson back in his frantic style of playing, seen before in "New History Warfare, Vol. 2" on tracks such as "The righteous wrath of an honorable man", as well as some of "All This I Do For Glory", on tracks such as "Spindrift". The titles of these songs are even similar in style, with the 2 albums mentioned, as well as this one, stylizing the song titles with the first letter of the first word capitalized, and everything else in lowercase. For avid listeners of Stetson's past works, this song might be appreciated even more, as not only does it nod back to his previous works by performing in a similar fashion as some of his more famous songs, but it also presents that unique style of playing in his newer sound, so that both old and new listeners can find something to appreciate. "Infliction" might be the slowest song of the album. It begins with a very rhythmic looping of the same few notes as vocals begin to find their way into the song. The rhythm builds itself ever so slightly as the song goes on, but the 5 minute run time feels a bit long for the payoff, which isn't overly extravagant to begin with. It is definitely an enjoyable song, but for Stetson's standards, it feels a bit weak. "Passage", following immediately after "Infliction", feels like it's doing exactly what the song previous was attempting to do, but with a much better flow, and a much better pay off.
As mentioned in the Lighthouse section of this review, this is one of the only songs on this album to have production, and it sure does show. It begins very quietly, but soon enough, a sort of plucking sound begins to come in, with quite possibly one of Stetson's most somber, relaxing, and comforting melodies of all time. Though one might be turned off by the initial slow start, the song proves its worth if given just a little bit of patience. I can't explain why or how, but the title "Passage" for this track is perfectly fitting. "Long before the sky would open" greets us once again with Stetson's typical style of playing. This song, despite being the longest on the album, sure doesn't feel like it. It contains one of the most gorgeous vocal melodies I've ever heard from Stetson, once again impressing me as to how he sings while simultaneously playing his instrument. This song is definitely a highlight off of here, and perfectly showcases how to make long, slow, and somber song not feel long at all. "One day in the sun" feels almost as an extension to the song previous, playing in a similar manor with similarly styled vocals, but not similarly enough to warrant the songs being stitched together. It's almost reminiscent of "Among The Sef" and "Who The Waves Are Roaring For" off of "New History Warfare, Vol. 3", where they almost served as counterparts to each other, with both songs working in tandem when played together and giving off a feeling of connectedness, while also working as songs of their own. "Fireflies" is yet another decent track on this album, giving us Stetson's classic style of panicked, jazz-esque saxophone. The track definitely picks up on the latter half, but for the most part, it feels more along the lines of a typical Stetson song with a bit of a different tinge added to it to thematically fit it into the album. Following "The Lighthouse II" and "The Lighthouse III" comes "Writhen". Haunting as always, Stetson once again delivers his classic style of playing. This track, however, comes in at only 2 minutes, and feels a lot more compact and to-the-point as a result. I feel as though this works very well for this song, as we have seen similar sounds already presented at this point in the project. Not to say that said sounds are bad, they're far from it, but it can get somewhat tedious hearing songs that sound a bit too similar within the same body of work, so to see "Writhen" take on a more dense and stinging feel is more than appreciated.
"The surface and the light" follows, once again bringing a more somber and almost heavenly sound. I hate to sound repetitive, but this, once again, might be one of Stetson's most comforting and gorgeous songs to date. The song sounds exactly how you'd imagine by the title. It almost feels as though you broke through a sort of constant darkness, almost like the type you'd see in the deep sea, just to emerge and feel a sense of relief wash over you. One interpretation I have devised for this song and the following song, "The Lighthouse IV", is that possibly the relief you feel isn't meant to be a sign of being done with your woes, but more of a sign that you're now ready to face them head on, hence the dark droning paired with the almost angelic vocals of "The Lighthouse IV". Or, just maybe, it is meant to give a sense of false hope or false security, as not only does "The Lighthouse IV" give an ominous feel that is strongly contrasted to the song previous, but it would continue to get darker. "Behind the sky" is a very interesting song. Quite possibly the most abrasive playing on this album is heard here, almost giving the feeling that we, as the listener, are facing battle against some sort of fear. Maybe something we've kept deep inside, something that's been building to a boiling point over years and years, something that struck us when we least expected it. Simply, it feels as though we are facing the height of our woes, and we have to keep strong to emerge successful, hence the title of the following song "Wrathful seas quiesce". Said song sounds once again like a moment of relief, but this time, a bit different. It feels a bit more frantic, but still heavenly. Almost as if to say, "You've faced your worst fears, and you've come out scarred, but stronger". "The Lighthouse V" hammers this idea in, with Lionáird's spoken-word tells the story that we just experienced. He describes "these days" as "fireflies in the dark", and as "a lighthouse beam through fog", but also telling a story that seems to point at the idea of being lost. I assume you could interpret this story a few different ways, but the way I see it, it tells the story of being lost in the world when humans were more in tune with nature. The old generation passing away and taking the secrets of life with them, leaving the new generation to take their own path and sail out to sea, letting life take them wherever they may go. It echoes a sort of idealism that is hard to imagine as a reality these days. Technology and infrastructure have paved the planet in a new light, leaving many to lack freedom in their life. When they are born, paths are set out for them to take, causing one's individualism to wither. As I said, there's definitely different interpretations to this song, but this is what I got out of it.
The album ends with "Safe with me", a sort of melancholic finale. The way I interpret this song is that it's meant to echo the woes of the current day. The vocal melodies repeat the Lighthouse melody for the last time, but in a slightly different and much more somber fashion, almost as if to say that the original melody is reminiscent of what we wish our lives could be, and this version is more reminiscent of how our lives truly are. There's even a sort of sound created with Stetson's breathing, almost imitating someone sniveling during a bout of sadness and crying. It almost feels as though you are being comforted by a loved one after an intense depression or panic attack. To me, the song is saying, "I know the world we occupy is cruel and unforgiving, but I'm here for you. I'll be your light in this world. You are safe with me".
Pt. 3: Final Thoughts
* If you've made it this far in the review, thank you once more. It means a lot that some random internet users sat down and read this. And, if not, oh well. Even if no one reads this, it feels good to write this much and publish it, even if it's on albumoftheyear.org and not some professional music critique publisher. The sense of community here is fantastic, and honestly kinda beats something like Pitchfork or whatever. But anyways, thanks one last time for reading, onto my final thoughts... *
If you couldn't tell, I really like this album. A *lot*. It doesn't help that I'm currently on vyvanse and I am concentrating all of my energy into this review, but truly, this album is a work of art. I've been meaning to get into writing longer reviews, especially with this semester of college coming to an end and the summer on the horizon, and this album was the perfect way to get me back into the swing of things.
I feel as though this is possibly Stetson's best work yet, or at least very close to it. NHW Vol. 3, as I mentioned before, will always hold a special place in my heart, but my god this has gotten close to it. On this album, Stetson's storytelling seems to have peaked, with his instrumentation doing so much in terms of crafting a narrative and emotions to fit it, that even when the album's poem comes in near the end on "The Lighthouse V", it feels almost complimentary. Don't get me wrong, it's fantastic, but at this point, it almost feels as though it's tying the bow on the story we just witnessed, rather than explaining it all in one song. Because, simply, if you give this album enough attention, it doesn't need explaining. You just 𝒈𝒆𝒕 𝒊𝒕. Stetson's playing also feels very matured at this point. It's clear that, even though his previous works were fantastic, he paid close attention to his skills as a saxophonist / multi-instrumentalist and fine tuned them over the years. It almost feels as though it's the reason why he took so much time to come back. This is obviously speculation, but it feels as though, while he took time away from his solo work for other endeavors, he was discovering a new, fresh sound for himself that was still reminiscent of his older works and not totally alien. As I had mentioned in the intro to the review section, it feels as though this album is intended as a magnum opus of sorts. And for Colin Stetson, I couldn't agree more.
Stetson, if you somehow are reading this: Holy ***, keep it up!