For the first-ever A Long Bow, I wanted to write about Colleen’s Everyone Alive Wants Answers, an album that I started listening to pretty recently, but haven’t been able to wrench from my brain since. I’ve posted two tracks individually on my blog since then, but haven’t had the right amount of space to truly gush about this record the way I’d like to. I wouldn’t say it’s one of my all-time favorite records, but it’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard before and taps into a place in my brain that not many other records go.
Colleen is the project of French musician Cécile Schott, who has been making the music under the moniker since 2001, with her debut album Everyone Alive Wants Answers arriving in 2003. She creates predominantly instrumental loop & sample-based music. Music boxes, harps, xylophones, pre-taped orchestras, birds, guitars, bells and more are among her arsenal, all used to a wicked effect. These otherwise pristine instruments and sounds are bent and beaten so that their natural beauty sometimes stays, but is ultimately corrupted in the end. Sounds are slowed down, sped up, reversed, heavily overlaid with other sound effects, distorted beyond recognition, wrapped in gauzy fuzz, thrown down an infinite chasm, on and on these sounds get stitched up into macabre figurines, only to play in a haunting puppet show forever.
Now this sounds all fine and dandy on paper. Crumbling loops of instruments typically used to indicate euphoric peace sounds pretty good. Sounds like The Caretaker, that’s usually pretty good. But when I say loops, that means that a short passage or phrase being repeated with very little variation getting repeated over and over. Usually a loop only lasts three seconds, sometimes it lasts a bit longer or shorter. Whole songs are based upon the repetition of one or more specific three-second motif where things progress from, where they can bloat from overfeeding or collapse from overuse. That’s not much to base an entire track off of, but Colleen makes things work.
On the opening title track, things start off serene enough. A flinty-sounding harp is plucked in a delicate, albeit slightly stressed manner. Birds are incessantly chirping in the distance. This intro loop lasts maybe two or three seconds. More harp and string sounds are quickly added to aid the listener. One damp, calming strum is quietly laid on top of the mix, while another section added to the original sample sounds feverish, like a performer is trying to escape from this finely-tuned prison. Static starts to billow around the arrangement in these tense parts, forming in the blind spots, creeping up and cutting out before the listener immediately notices. Eventually the loops unravel, giving way to a slowly vaporizing harp that decays along with the birds. This song perfectly sets the tone for the rest of the album: brilliant, euphoric sounds stuck in an eternal skip, slowly warping with every turn.
“Goodbye Sunshine” is another great example of finding strange euphoria in brokenness. The song sounds like it’s being rewound at a high speed. It sounds like the entire world is spinning in reverse, like an one’s life flashing before their eyes. This reversal gives the song an otherworldly quality – it’s hard to tell what exactly is being played here, but it sounds oddly nostalgic and uncanny. Reversed guitar and spindly, alien instrumentation weave around the listener’s head at dizzying speeds, sounding so unique that the listener must pay attention and try and interpret what exactly is happening to them. Interestingly enough, when put through a reverser, the only parts that sound remotely normal are the guitar at the very beginning and end. The sped up sounds are too far gone to identify at that point. No matter which way you spin it, “Goodbye Sunshine” sounds bizarre.
As “Goodbye Sunshine” is bizarre in its approach, there are other moments on the album that are explicitly formulated to be unsettling. “Long Live Mice In The Metro” starts with an ominous guitar pattern, but quickly begins to melt with the addition of an unpleasant sounding synthesizer. More and more omnipresent layers of noise are added to the track, acting as silent observers to the tragedy unfolding in the listener’s ears. Eventually the grating synthesizer vanishes, leaving the guitar sample alone and stuck with the imprint the synth left on it. Gloomy “Ritournelle” sounds like a fragment of a Disney animated film, but as it slowly repeats and gets progressively more chopped up, it becomes evident that the song would be more fit to soundtrack a horror short, rather than a Donald Duck adventure. Here the protagonist is set in a Groundhog Day-type scenario where they must relive the same tragedy day after day. A deserted man clutching fistfuls of sand slowly arches up towards the sky as the wind whips around him and shouts unintelligible pleads.
Many of these songs sound like they were meant to be interludes on other bands albums. An experimental take that was found while fooling around in the studio. “Let’s add that to the end of this song and feed it into the next, that sounds cool.” This transitional period only lasts a few seconds. Usually it’s barely noticed and probably skipped. It’s not given an official track number most of the time (except for the try hards). But here there’s an album comprising of 13 songs, each ranging from two to four minutes, completely built with these transitional, interlude-like pieces.
Cut to a track like “Carry-Cot.” A submerged guitar supplies melody, a windshield wiper-like heartbeat provides percussion and a staticky recording of a child telling a story acts as vocals. Effortlessly creates a strange mood. In any other album this would be seen as a longer interlude track. Next up should be a more immediate song, right? But instead comes “Your Heart On Your Sleeve,” a song that sounds like it’s getting revved up to burst into something larger, but never quite gets there. Sometime it quiets down, sometimes the sounds get preoccupied with distracting thoughts. But nothing larger comes of it. It’s another interlude-like track. It’s like living in a world of interludes, forever floating in transition. The lack of urgency to get anything done yields a strangely satisfying and hypnotic affect. Continuously in a state of transition. Nothing is absolutely set, everything is in motion. The same motions, over and over.
These thoughts of transition gets me into a topic that’s a favorite to tumblr nerds: liminal spaces. The loose definition of liminality deals with the limbo periods between the start and end of rituals, a process that has the same start and end every time. But what happens in the middle of that process before the desired result is achieved? It’s an ambiguous place where time is fluid and the anointed task has not yet been completed. One can call a daily commute a ritual. In this period of transit from home to work, one is not quite at home and not quite at work. What if one stops at a rest stop during their commute? Well ok, one could say, that person just stopped at a rest stop to buy a coffee, who cares. Add that to the route. But that stop is not the final destination, work is. That space in between is not part of your everyday existence, it only exists for you to pass through it, to get from one place to the next. It’s like a plane of existence that feels odd and otherworldly to be in for too long.
Listening to this album is like existing in this constant state of limbo, waiting for something larger to happen, a goal to be reached. A prominent melody, a catchy chorus, a killer hook are surely waiting just around the corner. At the same time, it doesn’t achieve the goals set by ambient releases, projects usually put out to occupy a sonic space. The songs on Everyone Alive Wants Answers are gearing up to lead to something else. They also carry a kinetic energy that came from another source. Usually songs don’t start organically; they cut in and out repeatedly. Winding up a jack in the box for an eternity.
“I Was Deep In A Dream And Didn’t Know It,” one of the more beautiful but aggravating songs on the record, features a piano struggling to complete a chord. It wobbles on two notes, so close to becoming a satisfying, three-note sequence, but it just can’t make it. It backpedals towards other notes and clumsily tries to make things work, but ends up falling flat. Feeling anxious and pitiful for the poor piano, other instruments chime in with gorgeous chords of their own. Brilliant harmonies pop up in the background, while our main friend is still awkwardly trying. But before the story is resolved, a ‘for whom the bell tolls’ train whistle comes and wakes us up before we find an answer to the piano’s story.
But eventually of course, we do find an answer. Not to that particular song, but for the bigger picture. The final goal has been realized: it’s the end of the album. Everything must come to an end eventually. Cutting the power and letting it all go. The record concludes with the appropriately titled “Nice And Simple,” a song of stitched together music box samples, with a haze of white noise acting as a glue to keep everything from falling apart. As the song progresses, the music box floats further away, like a fleeting memory. The repeating samples slowly expand into nothingness, absorbed by the space they’ve created.
After listening to this album, something strange was left in my brain. I’m not quite sure what that thing is. It could be some sort of receptacle holding all the beautiful sounds on this album. The gorgeous harp, the lightly strummed guitars, the gentle white noise, the nostalgic music box, the mystical vibraphone. The thing is holding them dear to me, hoping that they’ll appear somewhere again and have a more meaningful adventure. However, it could be a slightly more masochistic piece of metal, lodged in my pleasure center and willing me to listen to this house of mirrors over and over again, taking delight in soaking in my distorted shape until the album is finished. I’m not quite sure. Like I said at the beginning, it’s not one of my favorite albums of all-time, but it’s one that has stuck with me ever since my first listen. It occupies a space of its own. It has inspired me to write a whole bunch of words about it. I still don’t know what it is. Whatever it is, though, it’s existing in a completely different world than us common folk, waiting to suck us in for an unforgettable 40 minutes.