French artist Cécile Schott, a.k.a. Colleen, has made a career out of building sonic worlds from relatively minimal elements. Throughout several of her recordings, she’s employed a Renaissance-era treble viola da gamba in the service of a kind of cosmic, synth-laden dub pop, and she’s detailed on her website the various studio setups that she’s employed to create the sounds that she has—most of which fit pretty neatly on a single desk. But within what seems on paper like an intimate, solitary creative approach there’s an opening up into limitless possibilities, as she constructs layers of dreamlike beauty out of a kind of D.I.Y. elegance.
In creating her eighth album The Tunnel and the Clearing, Colleen found herself thrust into a series of new worlds outside the music itself. In the process of writing the songs on the album, she discovered she had been living with an undiagnosed illness, and its effect on her caused a temporary halt to her own creativity, not long thereafter going through the end of a relationship, entering a stage of healing and recovery as her music was temporarily put on hold. Yet as part of recovery, she sought out new surroundings in Barcelona where the sight of a nearby statue of St. Eulalia became a kind of beacon for her. And yet amid her entrance into both literal and metaphorical new worlds, the planet entered a stage of widespread crisis brought about by the pandemic, adding a final cap on the upending of everything familiar and comforting.
In the face of this experience of transition and personal crisis, The Tunnel and the Clearing feels like a soothing balm. Schott recorded the album in solitude, most of it recorded live, and there’s an intimacy and centeredness about it that feels like being in the studio with her as she works her way through these simple, albeit cosmic piece of organ-driven pop. From the skeletal pulse and warm arpeggios of “The Crossing,” Schott essentially lays down a template from which every track spirals outward to a degree, its simple, minor-key sound at once unencumbered by unnecessary elements yet strangely mystical at once. On a surface level it might bring to mind the late-night lullabies of Beach House, but there’s a kind of magic at the heart of it that evokes something more otherworldly. On “Implosion-Explosion,” she raises the BPMs in a hypnotic samba-disco groove session, vibes on some layered kosmische synth waves on the title track, and on “Gazing at Taurus – Santa Eulalia,” she delivers the closest thing to a pure pop song complete with verses and choruses—and yet, in all its lengthy, patient, abstract drones, it still exists in a world pretty far from what we’d typically understand as “pop.”
There isn’t a single moment on The Tunnel and the Clearing that doesn’t feel restorative in some way; most of the record is bathed in the glow of a warmly understated organ, and though it’s rarely ever sleepy, much of it is certainly hypnotic. It’s easy to read this as a form of musical healing, given the kinds of changes Colleen was experiencing as the album was made, but even more than that it feels like a gift to the listener—a sequence of music that serves to make us feel better, when it grows more difficult to find the thing that’ll do just that.
Label: Thrill Jockey
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.