Under the dictionary definition of album reads: a book of photographs, mementos, or a collection of some other kind — like music.
What constitutes a music album these days, is up for debate. The tangle of formats, streams, subscription models as well as the form the music actually takes, can at times feel bewildering. Finding the space to dedicate a solid 40 minutes or more of your attention, aligned to one artist’s vision is becoming something that’s perhaps more open now, that it’s ever been before.
Albums often just group together songs or works that flesh out a place in time, a vibe or variations on a theme, but occasionally we encounter something that pushes things way further than expected. The Clearing by JJJJJerome Ellis is one such album.
Taken on those terms, The Clearing lasts just over an hour, is presented as 12 tracks but much of what pours out the speakers is one of the most unusual and revelatory layered portraits of an artist we’ve heard. Those x5 J’s added to his name, and a statement within, offers the perfect capsule overview:
‘I speak with a stutter, I’m black and a musician, and I’m interested in the intersection of these things”
What these elements offer up is a beguiling sonic journey that zips together all sorts of sonic, physical, and conceptual Tetris blocks.
The near 11-minute Loops of Retreat combines a gorgeous droning bed of sax looped ambience, narrated by Ellis. A melding of poetic fragments, haiku splinters, a sideways drift through theory, slowly peppered with blocks of silence and shattered rhythms. Nothing quite marries up but it’s easy to see everything as the first slip of a potent cocktail of beat poetry and blurred-edge beats and smudges.
Tracks like The Bookseller, Parts 1 and 2 reveal the album’s confessional scattergun approach. Many tracks that showcase and explore Ellis’s stutter, from various instances when he’s recorded his speech, in the form of phone calls, and its curious patterning, as a result of his condition.
Dysfluent Waters slowly builds from an history lesson of black slaves striving for freedom into a startling brilliant thumping jazzy groove that could easily last for days…
Jede Krankheit ist ein musikalisches is an incredible 6-minute overview of the stutter itself, delivered like a 2021 amendment to John Cage’s majestic Indeterminacy. Here, the delays in speech due to his glottal block, silences become spaces that Ellis intends to fill with words with what he refers to ‘clearings’ and the whole collection name. Sonically, they are silences pregnant with intent and sound. Simply aquiring this insight is brain tingling, the way it’s all presented and delivered is nothing short of beautiful.
The album quickly defines any sort of normal structure, and it becomes pointless to map it out, a series of ideas, examples, and evidence, sumptuous musical twists and textural turns comes in wave after warm wave of discovery.
Over time, the album becomes so loaded and personal, it’s almost hard to take everything in. It’s clear that Ellis is a startlingly good musician, and a unique storyteller. With the countless folds of the album, it’s evident much here feels like a pristine new space in how voice and music can intermingle.
The entire album finally reaches its unique peak in the last two tracks… Milta is recording of a conversation Ellis has with a friend of his Milta Vega-Cardona. He reads a letter, feedback on an academic paper, which she sent to him that’s remained hugely important. She suggests he regards his stutter as:
‘a non-lineal time continuum and access to the ancestors – both for you and the listener, you are a conduit’.
The ideas are almost too much to get your head around at first but there’s something fearless and hugely touching about the whole piece.
The closer Punch Line somehow only makes sense given what’s come before, a sun dappled orchestral swelling, Ellis’s voice buried deep in the mix, a sample of comedian Bernie Mac, complete with a boisterous audience, sounds overlap from different places converging somewhere totally new. At the point the whole thing builds into a head spinning emotional soup, it’s suddenly and brutally cut to saturated nothing…
Every time I’ve played the album, I get to the end, exhale deeply and sit a while in a numbed creative ecstasy. The album is littered with John Cage, Alvin Lucier, Gil Scott Heron, jazz, minimalism, poetry, hip hop, audio books, academic theory, narration, voice overs, activisms, heartache, love, and of being both inside and outside the music.
The greatest compliment I can think of to convey this album is simply that I’m not even sure I like or understand much of what’s happening at points, but that time and time again, I’m drawn back into its brilliant uniqueness. Whilst I’m a white listener, a non-musician with no stutter, I still feel completely compelled by, and completely supportive of every idea that’s been gathered here – a rich seam of innovative mental sparkles.
It’s not an album to play repeatedly, nor carelessly, but The Clearing is an amazing example of some form of fearless art that doesn’t seem to come along very often. It’s strongly recommended you find time to get lost in this…
The Clearing is released on November 5 on NNA Tapes. It’s available digitally, and on vinyl including limited edition bundles. All are pre-orderable here.