Last we checked in with Spencer Zahn, he was very nearly winning album of the year in 2022 with his spellbinding and surprising record Pigments with Dawn Richards. Many loved the record, and rightfully so, but our own story I find funny enough to relay: It was one of many records where someone on staff reviewed it, then breathlessly burst in to tell everyone how great it was, only for one person to clear out enough time to sit with it and do the same, on and on, until eventually all of us were murmuring excitedly about it. The arthouse jazz-pop of the record, combining woodwinds and piano and upright bass and strings into a luxurious post-Talk Talk painterly composition, is exactly what we crave. So, with great excitement, we sat in wait for what came next, as did so many others. See then our surprise and joyful frustration (emphasis on joyful) when the promo for this record landed near the beginning of the year, mentioning how it was to be released in two parts, both of which were contained, but that ideally writing about the record should wait until after the second. And so it began: six months of muteness, putting on this record in quiet hours over the months as 2023, a terrible year containing one of the worst summers of my adult life, rolled on, offering more and more ways to emotionally recontextualize this record.
The curious composition of this record behooves it being talked about forward then back again. The staggered structure of the record’s arrangement and release becomes immediately apparent with both halves present. The first is spare, elegant, a number of solo piano compositions recorded as these types of pieces should be—in a room with good acoustics and the right arrangement of mics to capture what feels more like hearing a well-tempered player pouring their heart out rather than a pop piece. There is a sense of fibrousness here, the coarseness of reality, which let the dynamics and natural breath of the piano really sing. The emotional character of the first half is hard to verbalize but easy to feel, sitting in that strange liminal zone between yearning and nostalgia, romanticism and paranoia, the same kind of place that artists like Radiohead or films like The Snowman, the old animated and bizarrely beautiful and aching Christmas cartoon, like to mine. The relative sparseness and the gentle throb of Zahn’s rubato through these pieces aid in this sense of wintry, or at least autumnal, patience and grace.
As my year tumbled onward and rage turned to confusion, elation to despair, malice to giddiness, all the various colors of a perturbing year, this half of the record pivoted to catch my sentiments, responding to them with a mirrored sense of ache. Each when this half of the album feels beautiful, it still possesses that tenderness, the kind that makes you wary of harming the thing. Some solo piano work can be brisk and lively, forceful and potent, such that it feels like listening to a herd of stampeding horses or the madness of mathematics and architecture. Statues I moves differently: gentle swoops, scalloped shadow, the arrangement of simple geometries and shapes to provoke complex emotions, like the sonic equivalent of covers of ECM Records releases or the abstract but overwhelming emotionality of color field painters like Rothko.
Which makes the sudden lushness of Statues II so immediately catching. Ironically, these pieces, though clearly immediately lush to the ear following the sparseness of the first part, are themselves still less densely arranged than most of the material on Pigments. It’s a well-considered act of juxtaposition, renormalizing our ears to the tightened arrangements of solo piano compositions before letting loose with a set of more ensemble-driven pieces. Likewise, the instrumental palette on Statues II hews closer to what we might have expected naturally from a followup to Pigments, swapping the acoustic piano for synths, electric piano and pads, a return of the stand-up bass, saxes and woodwinds and a gorgeous persistent soundscaping of burbles and shimmers and glitches, grace notes of electronic elements meant to add texture the way old worn vinyl and rain and a crackling fire add intimacy to vintage jazz records. These pieces are much more circular, dreamlike. They feel immersive, like staring into a reflective pool, losing yourself in thought, fragments of paperback novels and old films intermingling freely with memory and fantasy. Lots of people try for this kind of romanticism in their music, to conjure that sense of post-modern joy within the perpetual ennui of the digital age, that same sentiment lo-fi hip-hop to study/relax to is foundationally set to conjure. Given Zahn’s successes with Pigments, his capacity to return to more concentrated forms of that kind of sentiment is not surprising.
Statues II also offers a fascinating recontextualization of its first part, one which comes almost immediately as it begins to play. The keenness of thought of the first part being so spare reveals itself: those solo piano compositions serve almost as training guides, teaching us how to listen to the architecture of his compositions, to hear what to him is a central melody and element and how, even with so much staying the same, the minor textural elements gilding them can change their emotional timbre and color so much. Perhaps this is why the record also eschews vocals, despite the resolute success of Pigments; perhaps, in a certain way, it makes more sense to listen to the two parts of Statues back to back before returning to Pigments, almost like witnessing a completed house being stripped to its barest foundation and frame before being rebuilt before your eyes. Suddenly, the beauty and thoughtfulness of the filigree is made apparent, making clear just how tenderly and thoughtfully those fine details are constructed when we view them in relation to the underlying architecture itself. It’s reminiscent in a way of the posthumous Prince record Piano & A Microphone 1983 showed us the wit and wisdom of that departed master’s writing by stripping temporarily what otherwise are quite maximalist recordings down to the elements Prince considered most fundamental as carried by the harmony of the piano and the melody of his voice.
Normally, this kind of relational experiment is provided by artists in the way of deluxe editions offering demos and rough mixes of songs as they are being prepared, allowing often only the deeply dedicated a peek into that side of the craft. Which is in part what makes this window feel so precious. Statues by its design reveals itself in circles, with the return to the first part showing how remarkable in their restraint those solo piano pieces are and with each return to the second how he must have heard each new layer of those more “complete” pieces assemble itself slowly in his mind. In doing this, Statues also reveals his compositional process writ large, a standalone work that makes legible deeper ordering elements of his other work. That’s a special kind of gift.
Langdon Hickman is listening to progressive rock and death metal. He currently resides in Virginia with his partner and their two pets.