The Negative Space of Music: Jacob Collier’s Djesse Vol. 3

If you’ve had a conversation with me about music recently, it’s likely that Jacob Collier has come up. His most recent album, Djesse Vol. 3, has become somewhat of an obsession of mine—I haven’t been able to stop listening since its release this past August. The extent to which Jacob Collier has captured my imagination is rather odd, because his music is, well, rather odd. If you’ve never listened to Jacob Collier, or if you have listened to him and thought, “well that was weird” (which would be as understandable of a reaction as it is common), I humbly offer this article as an initial way into something that can be quite a disorienting and bizarre experience. Collier’s music is very strange, to be sure, but upon a second or third or hundredth listen, it can become captivating, if heard with intention. Djesse Vol. 3 comes as a middle ground between musical complexity and listenability, which, rather than being set in opposition, serve to complement each other. 

Djesse Vols. 1, 2, and 3 come as the first three installments of a four-piece mega-album. In an August 2020 interview with NPR, Collier describes the project as an attempt to “describe all of the music that [he] had been listening to for [his] whole life in . . . [a] sprawling, bridge-building activity.” Rather than dividing the albums by genre, Collier describes them in spatial terms. He sees Vol. 1, which heavily features orchestral and choral arrangements, as filling a large acoustical space. He places Vol. 2, which takes its primary influences from folk and African music, in a smaller space, though still largely acoustic. Djesse Vol. 3 is heavily influenced by R&B, hip-hop, EDM, and pop music. Collier says that Vol. 3 explores “the idea of negative space. It’s like all of the whole scenario has collapsed and you’re in the middle of the night and you’re exploring all of the kind of deep funk within all of the strange weirdness of what it means to stay up late at night and create stuff.” 

Collier takes the idea of negative space seriously in the album’s opening track, “CLARITY.” Like most good music, it is understood fully only in retrospect. “CLARITY” is made up almost entirely of fragments and soundbites from later songs in the album—some shifted in pitch and speed, some played in reverse. All of this serves to disorient the listener. As the track reaches its close, Collier’s quiet voice speaks through, asking, “Are you ready?” before a build into the next track without pause. 

 “Count The People” is an EDM track featuring Jesse Reyez and T-Pain with a chorus that could get any club dancing to the beat. Despite whatever preconceptions one might hold about electronic music, there is no shortage of musical complexity here. The breakdown features several moments of complex jazz chord changes, along with the juxtaposition of discrete, otherwise unrelated moments in the song, a stylistic feature common to EDM, and—because he can—a one-measure long banjo solo. You might back the track up to see if you heard it right. Did he really just do that? Who would even think of that? Well, I guess Jacob Collier would. This solo is a minute detail, easy to miss if one is not listening for it (it comes at 2:13 in the track, for those interested), but it exemplifies one of the most compelling elements of Collier’s music: childlike delight. His brilliance has not resulted in a somber intent on composing what one might think of as “serious music.” Rather, his work is pervaded by a sense of play. In fact, it is precisely this sense, set in conjunction with complexity, which gives the music its vitality. So why couldn’t he put a one-measure banjo solo in the middle of an EDM track? For as serious and talented of a musician as Collier is, his retention of whim and delight keeps him approachable, and somehow human. 

The next track, “In My Bones,” featuring Kimbra and Tank And The Bangas, is an upbeat dance track easy to sing and dance to. Over the course of four minutes, the listener is taken on a journey from an upbeat double-time funk groove, through a sassy rap by Collier and Tank, an a capella stomp-and-clap bridge, and a return to the original groove, now heard quite differently than it was earlier. Where the beginning stayed in a contained musical space, the middle travels elsewhere, breaking those boundaries, so that even the return to this space is heard as more open.  

“Time Alone With You” hosts arguably the nastiest groove of the album. With the relaxed, silky vocal solo of Daniel Caesar, answered by his densely harmonized backup vocals, this track hits the balance point between complexity and listenability. Just as the song seems to be winding down to an end, the question is shouted: “Who’s that?” to which a whole choir of Colliers responds, “The most beautiful girl in the whole wide world!” The energy picks up dramatically, and, after a climax, a whirling sequence of chords winds us down to the original groove, ending where we began. (Though again, the similar material is heard quite differently, contextualized by a similar expansion of space in the middle.)

“All I Need” stands out as the crowning jewel of the album, taking the listener on an expansive journey. But Collier’s attention to detail is not lost in the scale of the piece. In fact, it is in the musical details that the piece gains its identity and forms its arc of sound. Listen for the way Collier constructs the drum groove over the course of the first minute of the song. Listen for the allusion to the chorus in 0:44 (another musical event only understood fully in retrospect). Listen to the way each pre-chorus builds on the last (0:32, 1:07, and 2:04), sharing analogous structural roles, but developing throughout the song instead of being identical. Listen for the modulation to G half-flat major at 2:14 (You read that right. Halfway between G-flat and G), and go try to plunk it out on an in-tune piano (hint: it won’t work—those notes aren’t on your standard keyboard). These details give the piece its vitality and interest. Collier inserts them for no other reason than that he likes them. But the details do not distract from the whole, obscuring the forest by the trees. Rather, they encourage a kind of imaginative listening wherein the listener contextualizes the moment-by-moment details by placing them within the overall form of the track. 

Collier responds to the spectacle of “All I Need” with emotional vulnerability in the R&B ballad of “In Too Deep.” With a considerable drop in musical complexity, Kiana Ledé’s tender vocals nicely complement Collier’s warm, round tone. The lyrics, melodic bass line, and simple groove all serve to draw the listener in, bringing them into an open, sympathetic, meditative space. 

This space is rudely filled by the disorienting sonorities of “Butterflies.” Where “In Too Deep” portrayed the bittersweet pain of moving on from a relationship through nostalgia and emotional vulnerability, “Butterflies” presents the chaotic side of these situations, throwing the listener into a darkened dream-space where things are not so clear. Remember Collier’s description of the album as “negative space.” Everything is thrown off; it’s unpredictable. But in its non-Euclidian darkness, “Butterflies” conditions both the way the surrounding tracks are heard. “Butterflies” comes just as the listener is settling into the album, tuning their sensibilities to Collier’s musical syntax, when suddenly, the musical rug is pulled out, revealing that the syntax is not as orderly or stable as it seemed. 

“Sleeping On My Dreams” and “Running Outta Love” respond to this ambiguity and uncertainty with childlike innocence and fun. The former is an upbeat dance track with a funky bass line and synth brass harmonies, a chorus you can sing along to, and plenty of quirky insertions. (During the bridge, Collier actually recorded his grammy trophy as a percussion instrument accompanying the harp.) The latter is pure ear candy, featuring the legendary vocal riffs of Tori Kelly and a groove that fits perfectly into the pocket she establishes. This musical meeting is a fortuitous one. Tori Kelly is, quite simply, a queen. Her raw vocal ability pairs well with Collier’s theoretical and technical knowledge, and as they meet in the middle, each comes out a better musician.

“Light It Up On Me” is another foray into the chaotic side of the negative space explored in Djesse Vol. 3. Like “CLARITY” and “Butterflies,” it is quite disorienting, with seemingly random chunks of music and sentence fragments from Collier and an unidentified female voice. The last thirty seconds of the track, however, feature an expansion into a broader musical space, like walking out of a dank cave into a cold, starlit night. (For the nerds out there, this section is actually a reversal of part of Collier’s Grammy-winning arrangement of the jazz standard “Moon River.”)

This expansion of space into the quiet of the night is answered by “He Won’t Hold You,” a choral meditation on love, loss, and loneliness. Though the song is not explicitly about shutdowns and quarantines, one can easily imagine how recent events influenced Collier’s writing on this song and this album, produced mostly in isolation. Collier’s introspection gives the listener a chance to slow down and reflect for themselves. “He Won’t Hold You” stands in contrast to the unsustainable pace of tracks like “In My Bones,” in which the lover sings “be my rush, be my crush, be my fantasy.” Collier gives the listener a much-needed chance here to just stop for a minute. Though it could be crudely categorized as a breakup song, “He Won’t Hold You” is pervaded by a sense of gratitude and the cost of learning in love.

The album closes with a lullaby, “To Sleep.” It comes as an inevitable conclusion to the album; after all, what does nighttime lead to but sleep? Despite this inevitability, this ending is not heard as predictable. Like much of human action, it is somehow both fitting and unexpected, resolving tensions which the listener was not conscious of until encountering them in their resolution. Collier leads the listener back to himself after the ecstasy of the album (literally understood as ex-stasis, standing outside of oneself). 

Hot take: Collier may be the most intelligent musician alive. He has gained renown for his knowledge of complex theoretical concepts (if you’re interested, check out his interviews with June Lee), his mastery of a wide variety of instruments, and his mastery of music production technology and software (check out his Logic Session Breakdowns on his Youtube channel). Collier’s main challenge as a musician is not in finding inspiration or gaining the technical skills to enact his vision—he’s got plenty of inspiration, skills, and vision—but in finding the balance between these things, in creating music that can be enjoyed not just on an intellectual level, but on an aesthetic one as well. 

One of the main successes of Djesse Vol. 3 is this approachability, in achieving a balance between complexity and listenability, aesthetic enjoyment and intellectual stimulation (which, again, are not as opposed as one might think). You’ll find yourself bobbing your head to jazz polychords and singing along to tunes in microtonal keys. American fiction writer Flannery O’Connor wrote in Mystery and Manners that analysis is most properly done for the sake of enjoying the art, and that is certainly true for Collier’s music: The more you return to it and really look at it, the more you enjoy it, finding more in it every time. Like a good novel, the music seems to grow as you grow. Djesse Vol. 3 should neither be dismissed as “just another pop/R&B album” nor as “just weird experimental jazz,” because it serves the critical role of filling in the liminal space between genres, informed by and challenging all of Collier’s influences. 

Dominic Bulger is a senior studying music and English.

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