Album Review: Colleen – The Tunnel and the Clearing

[Thrill Jockey; 2021]

Cécile Schott, the multi-instrumentalist, singer, songwriter, and producer behind the one-woman music outfit Colleen, has always been known for her searching, exploratory music. Her compositions often center on a small set of instruments — sometimes only one — which are played through effects, often delayed or echoed, until they resemble little jewel-like mazes. Schott’s singing voice occasionally interjects to sing small pieces of abstract, enigmatic poetry, more impressionistic than concrete or deeply revealing. It’s a formula that has worked quite well for Schott, who has been putting on music as Colleen since 2003. But while she used to be mostly regarded for her experimental work with the already-uncommon instrument — her trust viola de gamba — Schott has recently been delving more deeply into synth and keyboard work, which makes up her entire arsenal on her seventh album, The Tunnel and the Clearing.

There are limitations to every instrument, even multifaceted synths, and Schott knows this and works within it. Her best work, like her 2015 album Captain of None, sees her working within and subtly pushing right up to the limits of her chosen weaponry. Tunnel, though, is perhaps the first record of hers where the limitations actually feel limiting. Too often, the songs here amount to being very pretty but also rather aimless. She used similar techniques on her last album A flame my love, a frequency, but here it feels like Schott is a little too hemmed-in by her own compositional tactics.

That is, of course, not to say the album is devoid of interest or beauty — far from it. After the gentle percolations of opener “The Crossing”, we get “Revelation”, which feels much more substantial by comparison. Schott’s voice coos placidly, intoning things like “Truth: reveal yourself to me” in a calm and even tone. It’s all very incantatory, both conjuring and also questioning. It is one of Schott’s gifts that her music gives off a vibe of discovery, of curiosity, just as much as her sparse lyricism. The sounds underneath are undulating, aquatic, held together by the tiniest of pitch-shifted clicks. 

“Implosion-Explosion” and the title track are the most forward-moving tracks, with a sense of brazen momentum that the others don’t usually have. The synths here are mostly crunchy, a little distorted, often overlapping in a close but fast rhythm. These two are the most reminiscent of Schott’s prior work while still sounding like a very different animal. Even better though is the resplendent “Gazing at Taurus – Santa Eulalia”. Stitched along a soft-as-air drum machine pattern, Schott sings in an alluring whisper over washes of various keys and organs. There’s something deeply hypnotic to it all, like some of Juana Molina’s best work. As she repeats “Santa Eulalia” over and over, Schott casts a peculiar spell that could have gone on, seemingly, forever. 

But, as a whole record, the dreaminess comes off a bit too staid. Even the more aggressive (relative to the rest of the album) tones of “Implosion-Explosion” don’t reveal much more after the first couple minutes. Too often, the instrumentation ends up feeling too repetitive, certain synth patterns and textures — like the central ones on the opener, or the closer “Hidden in the Current” — feel less imaginative and experimental than what listeners of her past work know she’s capable of. At its worst, The Tunnel and the Clearing sounds akin to lovely if too-inoffensive loading screen music. At its best, it’s bewitching and intriguing. Overall, Schott still has much to give, and much to offer this particular genre of minimalistic abstract pop, but she may need to do more next time around to take her considerable skills even further.