Colin Self: Siblings Album Review
There’s a noise-techno stomper right at the heart of Colin Self’s new album, Siblings. Fragments of mangled vocals play hide and seek with a pounding beat: “Whaaaa,” one yell-yawns on repeat, while others are condensed into tics that form its sticky percussion. The track is called “Stay With the Trouble (For Donna)” and it’s the lit match to the beacon that the album builds in reply to feminist scholar Donna Haraway’s 2016 book Staying With the Trouble. In it, Haraway makes the case that the most fruitful response to challenging times lies in “making oddkin; that is, we require each other in unexpected collaborations and combinations, in hot compost piles. We become-with each other or not at all.”
Finding kin has been the meat of Self’s artistic practice for many years now. The work of the composer and choreographer, who lives between New York and Berlin, actively creates community. He co-founded the performance collective Chez Deep in 2012; he organized a group deep-listening walk for the release of his 2015 debut album, Elation; he’s collaborated with artists including Holly Herndon and Amnesia Scanner for their own releases; and four years ago, he founded the Xhoir vocal workshop, which is open to beginners and professional singers alike. “[I]t’s a really important outlet for dealing with the present moment, politically and socially, ” he said in an interview at the time. “Singing is a very freeing act, it lets you leave your body and touch people with sound.”
Siblings is the final installment of Self’s Elation Series, a six-year body of collaborative work that spans opera to performance art, sculpture to song, and in doing so showcases the vitality and versatility of the queer creative underground of New York and beyond. Such interdisciplinary interdependence both necessitates and creates the ideal conditions for kinship: trust, play, close listening. On his debut album, Self’s musical expression was centered on choral arrangements with electronic production that he tagged “devotional.” While his debut LP remains a salve, Siblings demonstrates an extraordinary evolution, pulling the concept of the devotional into an abundance of new shapes. To borrow Haraway’s term, the album is a compost of sonic vocabularies—including choral, techno, pop, folk, string quartet, noise, and East Coast club rhythms—and vocal evocations of kinship, in and among which a network of invigorating ideas burst into life.
On the tender synth-pop bubbler “Emblem,” Self sings of feeling like an “anomaly” before finding “the others who get it/Who might/Take care of me/Stand together/As a family.” His vocal, specifically on the intro, recalls Jimmy Somerville’s ecstatic falsetto on UK group Bronski Beat’s 1984 song “Smalltown Boy.” On it, Somerville sings that “the love that you need will never be found at home.” “Emblem” doesn’t just pick up the story where Somerville left off, it replaces the runaway narrative with one of running to; toward new ways of synergistic understanding and learning.
The album makes home for exquisitely arranged, empowering odes that work within the Western songwriting tradition, marrying skin-prickling strings with Self’s clear-eyed soar of a voice (“Survival,” “The Great Refusal”), as well as tracks that earnestly sidestep structure altogether. A Belarusian political poem written and read aloud by artists Tanya Zamirouskaya and Anastasia Kolas kicks off the chaos of “Ante-Strategy,” which fashions hyperactive dialects from digital distortion. “Research Sister” reads like the sonic sibling of WALL-E’s junk compression, a sci-fi speed-walk through humanity’s trashing of the planet and the care-taking that continues in spite of everything.
Siblings, like any chosen family, is held together by moments of joy. There’s a melodic jig near the end of album opener “Story” that would flash a mischievous grin if it could. Snatches of laughter and gossip, exaltations and excitations, punctuate the ballroom-influenced “Quorum Feat. Aunt Sister,” which is built around a video chat conversation between artists Martine Syms and Diamond Stingily. The tick-tock tumble of “Uncounted,” which features fragments of artist Emily Roysdon’s text of the same name and evokes the sound-effect explorations of Art of Noise (whose music Self has previously performed to), is set in motion by a conspiratorial cackle by Amanda Peters Gilmore, who Self counts as one of his “many mothers” in the liner notes.
Roysdon’s voice and ideas can also be heard on the earwormy “Transitions,” which reminds that the margins have always been, will always be, a site of movement, resistance, and joy. “Genders and governments,” she proclaims; “a chance to be moved.” While the Trump administration attempts to commit acts of trans erasure, “Transitions” makes its position clear. Over rainfall chimes at the song’s tail-end, a mantra is repeated: “We commit to you.” A simple statement of siblinghood, its spirit resounds throughout the whole album. In creating space for such a rich spectrum of expression, Self and his many families of collaborators have created a timely and timeless document of the kinship possibilities that await when ears and hearts stay open.