A likable, but inconsistent journey into atmospheres
The task of creating pop music that’s “ethereal,” “amorphous” or “swirling”— the sort that prizes texture and atmosphere as much as it does melody— is full of pitfalls. This stuff can quickly turn boring if discernible songs don’t emerge from the musical haze. Even if it takes repeated listens to hear, songcraft should lie somewhere underneath those watery atmospherics, lest they merely put you to sleep.
French multi-instrumentalist and vocalist Cécile Schott, better known by her stage name, Colleen, has made her latest foray into this territory with The Tunnel and the Clearing, on which she meets the aforementioned standard only in fleeting bursts. Her swirly-twirly synths tend to get the better of her compositional talents, and the result is an album that meanders and never quite sorts out evenly.
Colleen began work on The Tunnel and the Clearing in 2018 but was forced to stop after experiencing fatigue from a previously undiagnosed illness. After undergoing years of treatment, she moved to Barcelona, where she faced two more challenges: COVID-19 lockdowns and the end of her long-term relationship.
Naturally, these tumultuous experiences impacted the content of the record, as Colleen set out to capture an “emotional noise” with “motifs functioning as questions and answers, doubts and assertions.” She further challenged herself by using only analog electronic instruments along with a Yamaha organ keyboard and certain Moog effects, the goal being maximum creativity with minimal tools.
Promising ideas crop up across The Tunnel and the Clearing, but they rarely develop into anything memorable. The warbling chord progression on “Hidden in the Current” is neat, but Colleen’s weak vocal melody and dreary delivery fail to make it an engaging piece. One can appreciate how the instrumental cut “Gazing at Taurus – Night Sky Rumba” recalls the melody of the preceding track, but that doesn’t mean it’ll hold people’s attention—it’s so stiff and lifeless that it sounds like nothing more than muzak with an artsy twist.
It’s rewarding when Colleen actually serves up a reliable song, like “Implosion-Explosion,” which she hooks by murmuring a simple “ooh, ah,” or the sticky “Gazing at Taurus – Santa Eulalia.” But these moments are never sustained long enough for the record to consistently hold your attention, and they wind up getting lost in the aural mist as a result. On another note, the textures Colleen reaps from her limited instruments are remarkable—the warm click-clack percussion on “Revelation” evokes dripping water, an effect that’s heard throughout the album, and the synths on the title track are woozy and enveloping.
The Tunnel and the Clearing is a likable effort, but it’s also an inconsistent one. Colleen showcases brief flashes of memorable songcraft that are too often subordinated by the atmospheres she conjures up with her arsenal of dreamy, lo-fi synths. Good on her for conjuring up those atmospheres in the first place, but atmospheres alone don’t equal excitement.